Today’s birds are descended from survivors of mass extinction | News

As I do every year around this time, I use my stay to look for dinosaurs. Or, more accurately, looking for the descendants of the dinosaurs, since birds are one of the few creatures in the animal kingdom that survived mass extinction.

The story is familiar to anyone with a knowledge of paleontology: Approximately 66 million years ago, an asteroid 6 miles in diameter, roughly the distance between the center of Olean and the center of Portville, plummeted to earth in Central America in the area of ​​what is now the Yucatan Peninsula. And just as a baseball hitting the ground spews out a cloud of dust, the asteroid also spewed out a huge cloud of debris that superheated Earth’s atmosphere as the debris fell back to earth.

It was this superheated atmosphere that became even more toxic when the debris ignited global fires that contributed to the mass extinction of what paleontologist Sir Richard Owen first named “dinosaurs” in 1842. The word dinosaur comes from the Latin meaning “dinosaurs.” terrible” and “lizard.”

So how did the birds survive? First, not all of them survived. There was a large group of birds that had teeth that did not survive the mass extinction. Others, the ancestors of our modern birds, had developed toothless beaks long before the asteroid hit Earth, meaning they could pick and pluck seeds and nuts from the remains of fires.

And it wasn’t just beaks that allowed the birds to survive because without the necessary digestive equipment birds needed to digest hard seeds and nuts, they too would have perished. Even today, birds can be seen eating gravel along the path which they use to break up hard seeds and nuts.

The time between the asteroid impact and the return of a more normal atmosphere has been measured in decades, so the beaked birds that were able to survive and reproduce during those decades were the ancestors of the birds we see today.

The other feature we associate with birds, feathers, began to develop long before the mass extinction and is thought to have evolved from the scales of reptilian dinosaurs.

The development of toothless-beaked birds has been described as an “evolutionary accident” that allowed them to survive when approximately 75% of life on Earth came to a catastrophic end. But it is precisely this “accident” that helps us appreciate the wonder of birds and also provides us with a connection to a distant time when life on earth began again.

For me, that wonder is most pronounced in May, when birds that spend the winter near the Yucatan Peninsula return to our area in brilliant colors to start a new life. And if you’re wondering why they come back when they do, just look at the front of your car the next time you’re driving in a rural area at night or in the early morning this time of year—it’s covered in bugs. It is these insects and many others that attract warblers, vireos, orioles, and tanagers from the tropics to our area to nest and breed.

And while it’s fairly easy to spot individual songbirds as they guard and defend territory, seeing a migratory flock of different species in close proximity to one another is unusual and exhilarating, and as far as I can remember, has only ever happened to me. three times despite many years of birding.

The first time was on the Sidewalk Trail at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, when large numbers of these energetic little birds, too numerous to count, fluttered through the brush and treetops accumulating fat reserves for their long Flight over Lake Erie. and at their nesting sites in Canada’s boreal forests.

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The second time was in Bush Hill State Forest in 2020 when a cold spring delayed budding of trees and shrubs and pine warblers, black-throated green warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, black and white warblers, black warblers, yellow rump. , northern parulas, magnolia warblers, yellow warblers, redstarts, ovenbirds, and Cape May warblers, as well as rosy-breasted grosbeaks and two species of thrushes were foraging at eye level in a moist area along the side of the highway.

Seeing so many neotropical migrant species in such a small area is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

The third time was on May 15 of this year at Golden Hill State Forest in Humphrey, when he was counting birds as part of the Buffalo Ornithological Society May Count. I had started the day with my own property and had to decide whether to use the rest of the morning, the best time for bird watching, to go to an area along Ischua Creek or to the Golden Hill State Forest.

I don’t particularly like plodding through the woods in camouflage during spring turkey hunting season, but the gates to Golden Hill were still locked the last time I was there, which would cut down on the number of hunters. I decided to give it a try and parked at the gate.

I had just gotten out of my car when I heard and saw bird activity in two cherry blossom trees and once I put my binoculars on them I noticed a flock of birds including black-throated blue, magnolia, bay, yellow, yellow-rumped, Nashville, brown-sided, and Tennessee warblers, as well as a Philadelphia vireo.

Unlike the flock I saw in Bush Hill State Forest two years earlier, this flock acted much more like a warbler, meaning they fluttered between branches well above eye level. If you’ve ever stood for a long period of time looking over your head while holding binoculars, you know it feels like your arms are going to fall off, but you don’t want to stop looking because you might miss something. That’s how I felt but 10 minutes later the birds were gone and it was like it never happened.

Just one of those chance moments in time that will never be repeated but never forgotten. Bird watching is like that.

It’s true that birds aren’t the only creatures to survive the mass extinction, but I’d rather hunt them than some of the others (alligators, for example), which are distant cousins ​​to birds. I leave that to someone else.

(Jeffrey Reed writes a monthly birding column for the Olean Times Herald. Readers with questions or comments can call him at 557-2327 or email him at

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