Bird Watcher's General Store

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How Many Birds Are There Really?

Dear Bird Folks,

I asked my teacher how many different birds there are in the world, but she didn’t know, so she asked another teacher. That teacher wasn’t sure but thought the world had something like 22,000 different birds. Is she right?

– Everett, Grade 1, Eastham Elementary School.


Good for you, Everett,

I think it is great that a first grader is interested in bird counts, not to mention having excellent typing skills . When I was in the first grade. my only goal was to make it through the day without calling the teacher “mommy.” Talk about awkward. Even the kid who ate paste made fun of me. Although he never said anything directly to me, probably because his lips were stuck together.

The world has many different species of birds, but not 22,000. Now don’t get down on your teachers for not being right about this one. Teachers have a very tough job. Every morning they face a room filled with germy kids, half of whom are eating paste, while the other half are calling them “mommy.” The male teachers really hate that.

If there aren’t 22,000 birds, what is the real number? Well, let’s think about it for a minute. There’s the cardinal, the chickadee, the bluebird How many is that? Three? Let’s not forget about the Bald Eagle and the roadrunner. Now what are we up to? I count five. How about you? Man, this is getting us nowhere fast. Maybe I should just look it up in this book on bird statistics that’s sitting on my desk. It might be quicker.

The exact number of birds in the world is not known, but most experts believe it’s around 8,000 to 10,000 different species. Right now you are thinking, “Why such a large discrepancy? Can’t these experts count?” To which I would reply, “Whoa! Discrepancy is a pretty big word for a first grader.” Yes, these experts can count, at least most of them can. The problem is that they can’t agree on which birds should be counted. An example is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Many claim it still exists, while others aren’t so sure.

Another area of conflict is when researchers try to decide which birds are truly a single species and which are only a subspecies. But let’s not get into that right now. This species vs. subspecies talk is drier than a glass of chalk, and bit beyond most first graders. You probably won’t understand it until your second year. By that, I don’t mean the second grade… I mean your second year of grad school.

Let’s talk about some bird statistics that all bird people agree on, and that first graders may find more interesting. The largest bird in the world is what? Anyone want to guess? If you said “Larry Bird” you would be close, but not close enough. The largest bird in the word is Africa’s ostrich. At a height approaching nine feet and a weight of nearly three hundred pounds, this feathered bird is even larger than Larry. And if you don’t know who Larry Bird is, ask your parents. Boy, it’s hard to write to a first grader. How do those teachers do it?

If the largest bird is the ostrich, what would the smallest bird be? Come on, you should know this. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the smallest bird that we have here in eastern North America: the smallest bird in the entire word is the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba. The Bee Hummingbird, which is a bird and not a bee, is a mere two inches long and weighs 1.8 grams, which is less than the weight of a penny. If my multiplication is correct, it would take 76,800 Bee Hummingbirds to equal the weight of one ostrich, but you may want to check my math on that.

Here’s a few more odd bird facts for you. The Wandering Albatross is the bird with the longest wingspan. At nearly twelve feet, this bird’s wingspan is two feet longer than an NBA basketball hoop is tall, but even with those long appendages the birds still can’t dunk. The Sooty Tern is the most aerial bird, meaning it spends the most time in the air. They have been known to go three to ten years without ever landing. Jet Blue, on the other hand, can go three to ten years without ever taking off. Here’s one for you: What bird is the most valuable to us humans? To me the most valuable is any bird that eats lots of bird seed. However, the real answer is the domestic chicken, which produces 562 billion eggs each year, and is rewarded for its efforts with a one-way trip to KFC. Where’s the justice?

Now, Everett, you know all kinds of cool bird info that you can politely tell your teacher. But remember: don’t call her “mommy.” It will take you years to live it down. Just ask me.