Bird and Dinosaur skeleton comparison picture

Was Dinosaurs Birds?

When we decided to start up a bird food subscription service, we knew we would have to provide more than just premium birdseed and suet balls to our customers. We decided that our Palores website and social media accounts would be repositories of fascinating facts about birds and all things avian. With this in mind, I decided to do some research into what common questions are posed to google about our feathery friends so we could provide useful real-world advice and information, in doing so I came upon the frankly immortal question “Was dinosaurs birds?”. Aside from the obvious grammatical errors in this question and utterly baffling syntax, for one who has a little knowledge of ornithology and the evolution of birds, there are some really relevant and interesting questions we can guess that people were searching for. These questions include:

  • What is the connection between birds and dinosaurs?
  • Are birds evolved from dinosaurs?
  • Are all dinosaurs related to birds?

So in this post, I’ve decided to explore these questions a little bit and finally put to bed the hotly debated question “Was dinosaurs birds?”!

What is the Connection Between Dinosaurs and Birds?

In the South-East of Germany in 1861 a fossil was discovered that would change the way we think about birds forever. This defining find was the first fossil example of the Archaeopteryx, the first prehistoric animal to be found that had wings and feathers alongside the bony tail and teeth of a reptile, making it a possible candidate for a link between non-avian dinosaurs and birds. Archaeopteryx would have lived in Europe around the late Jurassic Period, between 145 and 160 million years ago, and would have been about the size of a magpie. 

However, it would be over 100 years until the connection between birds and dinosaurs truly began to be taken seriously, when prominent palaeontologist John Ostrom revived the theory that Archaeopteryx was closely related to certain types of dinosaurs, called theropods, which led to a wave of dinosaurs being defined as animals that were less reptilian and more similar to the birds we see today. However, there were still many people who didn't subscribe to the theory that birds were directly related to dinosaurs.  That was until 1996 and the discovery of a new fossil, in China, called Sinosauropteryx. Sinosauropteryx was clearly a dinosaur but it was covered in fur made up of small feathers called protofeathers, which were visible because of the amazing preservation of fossils in this area of China.

Are Birds Evolved From Dinosaurs?

Since the discovery of Sinosauropteryx, there have been more than 40 different species of dinosaurs that have shown evidence of having feathers of some kind. Although there is no definitive proof, every fossil found adds to the huge amount of evidence to support the theory that birds are the descendants of theropods and that theropods are remarkably bird-like in their makeups. Features such as skeletal similarities, feathers, flight, beaks and nesting behaviours were once thought to be the exclusive domain of birds, we now know were shared with these theropods.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence to support the idea that birds are directly related to dinosaurs is their highly specialised and unusual breathing systems. Birds have a highly efficient one-way breathing system that pumps air directly through their bodies, made up of a small rigid lung on their backbone which is attached to a system of air sacs and capillaries. These breathing systems are highly unusual in the animal kingdom but there has been strong evidence to show that dinosaurs also had this kind of bellows-like system. And it’s not just the small bird-like ones that show these traits, dinosaurs as diverse as Allosaurus, Aerosteon and Velociraptor all show evidence of this uncannily bird-like breathing system.

Are all dinosaurs related to birds?

In short, the answer to this question is a simple ‘no’, dinosaurs were a hugely diverse group of animals that we are still finding out about today, the dinosaurs we have talked about in this article make up a tiny fraction of these.

However, as we mentioned above, the current theory today is that birds are the direct descendants of theropods, a dinosaur clade, or group, made up of hollow boned, three-toed dinosaurs of which over 10,000 species have been identified. Theropods in themselves are hugely varied, from the crow-sized Microraptor all the way to the gargantuan Tyrannosaurus Rex, so even if they're not related to all dinosaurs, birds still have a pretty amazing family tree!!

So, in conclusion to the question “was dinosaurs birds?”, we have come to a fairly clear answer as far as I can see; some dinosaurs was birds! The evidence is more than just compelling when it comes to showing that the theropod family of dinosaurs are directly related to our modern birds and show a clear evolutionary path. 

If you’d like to find out more on this subject I’d highly recommend the excellent book Flying Dinosaurs by John Pickrell, from where most of this fascinating information came from.