Bird DNA

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dna-163710_640For many years, ornithologists classified birds on the basis of their anatomy and behavior – feather color, plumage patterns, leg length, bill curvature, song, nest structure, and hundreds of other characteristics. In the last twenty or so years, however, DNA has been used to clarify relationships among birds, as we do now with humans.

Without getting too scientific, I’ll try to briefly explain the process without talking about the details of the chemistry involved. A blood sample is taken from the birds, usually by clipping a toenail and the DNA is extracted from the blood. The DNA, normally double stranded (like a ladder with rungs), is split in half (like a ladder vertically sawed in half ). These half strands are then mixed with half strands of another bird. The half DNA strands will combine with other half strands, some of which will be pure (one bird) and some will be mixed- a half strand from each bird. These hybrid DNA molecules are then heated. Since hybrid halves do not exactly match, they will eventually spit apart from the heating. The more the strands are alike, the more heat it takes to split them. So the higher the temperature before the strands breaks provides a relative measure of how closely the two birds are related. This is the process of DNA hybridization, very simplified.

Almost all the 10,000+ species of birds in the world have been examined in this way. For the most part, DNA studies have affirmed the classification determined by anatomy and behavior, and only minor changes were made. One big change, however, is the discovery that storks are more related to vultures than they are to herons and egrets. Looking at a stork’s bald head you can see the resemblance. We now know that falcons are more closely related to songbirds than they are to hawks or eagles. And hummingbirds are just a specialzed version of the nighthawk!

Based on DNA, we have split species into two (the Plain Titmouse became the virtually identical Oak Titmouse and Juniper Titmouse) and have lumped two species into one: the Audubon’s Warbler and Myrtle Warbler became the Yellow-rumped Warbler) and the Yellow- and Red-shafted Flickers became the Northern Flicker.

DNA has also determined that several bird species such as Hooded Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds are rather promiscuous as one third of the eggs in a typical nest do not belong to the mate of the female tending the nest.

We can see evolutionary changes by studying bird populations over time – the reason museum collections exist. DNA studies give us much more detailed and accurate information over a shorter period of time.

One of the most active debates is the relationship of birds to dinosaurs, which ornithologists generally believe is close. Some say that birds are just modern dinosaurs. When we can reliably extract DNA from dinosaur fossils, we’ll have solved another great problem in the fascinating field of evolution.


7 thoughts on “Bird DNA”

    1. That’s a very complex question without a simple answer. I’m not versed enough in genetic technology to provide an explanation but I can tell you that the DNA sequence is not “wings”, but DNA sequences for bone, muscle, tendon, skin, blood supply, feathers, nerves, and so forth. So it’s a bunch of DNA sequences that form a wing. Plus, there is a process called induction in which one bone induces another bone to form, so the DNA sequence is actually bunch of sequences.

  1. Is it possible to take some genetic sequencing of the birds wing and over lap it into a humans back? Almost like two more arms except with feathers… would that somehow work?

  2. Hello Dr. Roger Lederer
    My question for you on DNA testing for Macaw birds.

    Is it possible to use the newly hatched eggshell of the hatchling to conduct the DNA test for it sex?

    Thank you.

  3. An unusual bird has shown up on our property in Missouri. It looks like a nuthatch, with a similar bill and the behaviors of a nuthatch. I watched the female flutter upside down and eat the berries from a snowball bush. But this bird has a dark neck and throat, both the male and the female. I am a casual birdwatcher, but I’ve spent many years watching birds in this area. It does not look familiar and I can’t find any match online. Two nights ago, I discovered a nest built into the roller shade bar of a patio. After I opened the door and turned on the light, the bird panicked and fluttered, similar to a swallow, then it fluttered at me to try to get me to go away, then flew off. I couldn’t see the bird well from the porch light. We needed to remove the nest, and I took it down today. This was clearly not a barn swallow’s nest. I think it belongs to the unusual nuthatch. There are tiny feathers in the nest. Would you be interested in having these for DNA analysis? Or perhaps you recognize this bird from the description and it is not unusual in other areas.

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