Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Birds (Phylum Chordata: Class Aves) of Singapore

Birds (phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, superclass Tetrapoda, class Aves) are air-breathing vertebrates (animals with a backbone and a hollow tube of nervous tissue called a spinal cord) characterised by the possession of feathers. They are descended from four-limbed ancestors (hence the superclass Tetrepoda which means "four legs"), with the two front limbs being modified to become wings.

Many of them have hollow bones, lacking marrow, so as to keep the bird light. A number of their bones are also reduced in size, and many are fused together to form a rigid frame so that the bird will not need not develop large muscles to hold the bones together. All these adaptations, together with the feathered wings and strong flight muscles, allow many birds to be able to fly efficiently.

Birds also have a beak (or bill), which is a hardened structure with upper and lower parts (or mandibles) extending from the mouth, that is used for feeding.

Like the mammals, birds are endothermic, being able to generate body heat and maintain the body temperature within a narrow range. And like many of the reptiles and a few mammals, birds are able to produce water-tight eggs, which are better protected from the external environment compared to the eggs produced by amphibians and fishes.

Here are some examples of birds that are recorded from Singapore:


Waterfowls (order Anseriformes) are birds that have adapted to swimming, and they mostly have a relatively broad bill, long neck, large body, short legs and webbed feet. They include the ducks, geese and swans, some of which are domesticated for human consumption.


Fowls (order Galliformes) refer to chicken or chicken-like birds which usually have colourful feathers, elaborated head skins, feathers and/or other ornaments, and a relatively small head compared to the body. They usually exhibit sexual dimorphism, with the males more brilliantly coloured, or equipped with special feathers and/or other ornaments for courtship display. Some species, such as the chicken, quails, turkeys, pheasants and peacocks, are domesticated either for consumption or as pets.


Charadriiform birds (order Charadriiformes) are very diverse in their appearances and behaviours, though most species live near water bodies (and hence many are called shorebirds) and nest on the ground. Most species are also strong flyers, and migrate over long distances during the winter months. Examples include the plovers, sandpipers, lapwings and terns.


Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Grebes (order Podicipediformes) are water birds with roundish bodies, small tails and relatively long necks. They are often confused with ducks, but unlike the latter they have pointed bills (instead of broad bills) and toes with leaf-like lobes (instead of webbed feet).  The legs are set towards the back end of the body, allowing them to give powerful kicks with minimum drag, hence making them good swimmers and divers.


Pelecaniform birds (order Pelecaniformes) are mostly birds with relatively long necks (or can stretch it far out), long legs, and short tails (with a number of exceptions). In Singapore, they are represented by the herons and their allies (family Ardeidae), though occasionally rare vagrants like the ibis or free ranging pelicans from the Bird Park can be seen. These birds usually live in wetlands, grasslands and scrublands.


Suliform birds (order Suliformes) are birds with webbed or partially webbed feet, short legs, long wings and long bills. Many are coastal species, and a good number are pelagic birds that spend the major part of their lives out in the open ocean, coming to shore only to breed. Examples include cormorants, frigatebirds and boobies.


Storks (order Ciconiiformes) are birds with long bills, long necks, short tails and long legs. They resemble the herons, but have stouter bills.


Eagles, falcons, kites and other diurnal raptors (order Falconiformes) usually have big hooked bills, strong legs, and long sharp talons on the toes. They generally have excellent eyesight and are very strong flyers. Most are soaring birds, being able to maintain their flight without flapping their wings, but instead ride on the currents created by rising hot air. They are also called birds of prey, since most of them hunt small animals to feed on, though many are also carrion feeders.


Cranes, crakes, rails and their allies (order Gruiformes) are generally ground dwelling birds with long legs and feet but short tails. While cranes are not recorded from Singapore (except the occasional free-ranging ones from the Zoo or Bird Park), a number of rails (family Rallidae) can be found in the country.


Pigeons and doves (order Columbiformes) are birds with a relatively small head, short bill, short neck, stout body and short legs. They mostly eat seeds and/or fruits. Generally there is no real distinction between "pigeons" and "doves", though sometimes the former is used to refer to bigger ones, and the latter, smaller ones. Some people also use "pigeon" for the more frugivorous ones that forage on trees and bushes, and "dove" for those that forage on the ground.


Parrots (order Psittaciformes) are birds with short, rounded, hooked beaks and relatively large heads. They are mostly gregarious and make loud screeching calls. Parrots feed mostly on seeds and fruits, though they may sometimes feed on flowers, pollen, nectar and even insects. Their hooked beaks allow them to easily peel away fruit skins and seed coats, and they have muscular and flexible tongues to help handle and retrieve what they want to eat.


Cuculiform birds (order Cuculiformes) are mostly birds with streamlined bodies, stout beaks and longish tails. In Singapore, they are represented by the cuckoos (family Cuculidae). Many of the species are brood parasites, meaning that they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, and the latter will help incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks after they are hatched.


Owls (order Strigiformes) are birds of prey which mostly hunt at night. Depending on the species, they may prey on small mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, crustaceans or fish, which they kill with their powerful talons and sharp, hook-like beaks.


Caprimulgiform birds (order Caprimulgiformes) are nocturnal birds characterised by their relatively large eyes, short necks, short legs, bristles around their mouths, and cryptically patterned, brownish plumage.  In Singapore, this order is represented by the nightjars (family Caprimulgidae), which are more often heard than seen at night due to their loud calls.


Swifts (order Apodiformes) are birds with long, scythe-like wings, short beaks, and often forked tails. They make the fastest powered flights among all flying animals, and usually catch their insect prey on the wing.


Coraciiform birds (order Coraciiformes) are mostly colourful birds which nest in holes. Many species have three forward-pointing toes, with two of the toes fused at the base. Traditionally, they include the rollers, bee-eaters, kingfishers, hornbills and hoopoes, but there have been a number of disputes on the classification of the birds of this order, with studies proposing that some groups should become orders of their own.


Piciform birds (order Piciformes) are mostly arboreal birds which build their nests in tree holes, though some species are brood parasites. Their claws are adapted to hold on to tree trunks and branches, and most species have very stout bills. Examples include the woodpeckers and barbets.


Passerines (order Passeriformes), sometimes called perching birds, are birds adapted to hold on to a perch tightly, even when they are asleep. Three of their four toes are oriented forward, and the remaining one is oriented backwards. And when a passerine lands on a perch, its weight causes the tendons in the leg to tighten and the toes will clamp together tightly, allowing the bird to have a tight grip on the perch.

  • Bird Ecology Study Group. Retrieved Apr 8, 2013,
  • Briffett, C. 1986. A guide to the common birds of Singapore. Singapore Science Centre. 160 pp.
  • Burnie, D. 2001. Animal. London: Dorling Kindersley. 624 pp.
  • Edwards, Scott V. and John Harshman. 2013. Passeriformes. Perching Birds, Passerine Birds. Version 06 February 2013 (under construction). in The Tree of Life Web Project,
  • Robson, C. 2010. New Holland field guide to the birds of South-East Asia. London: New Holland Publishers. 304 pp.
  • Singapore Birds. Retrieved Mar 25, 2013,
  • Strange, M. 2000. Photographic guide to the birds of Southeast Asia. Singapore: Periplus. 398 pp.

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