The fourth class of the Vertebrata is that of Aves, or Birds. The Birds may be shortly defined as being "oviparous Vertebrates with warm blood, a double circulation, and a covering of feathers" (Owen). More minutely, however, the Birds are defined by the possession of the following characters:
The embryo possesses an amnion and allantois, and branchiae or gills are never developed at any time of life upon the visceral arches. The skull articulates with the vertebral column by a single occipital condyle. The form of the vertebral centra varies; but they are in no case amphicoelous, except in the remarkable extinct form described under the name of Ichthyor-nis. Each half or ramus of the lower jaw consists of a number of pieces, which are separate from one another in the embryo; and the jaw is united with the skull, not directly, but by the intervention of a quadrate bone (as in the Reptiles). The fore-limb in no existing birds possesses more than three fingers or digits, and the metacarpal bones are anchylosed together. In all living birds the fore-limbs are useless as regards prehension,' and in most they are organs of flight. The hind-limbs in all birds have the ankle-joint placed in the middle of the tarsus, the proximal portion of the tarsus coalescing with the tibia, and the distal portion of the tarsus being anchylosed with the metatarsus to constitute a single bone known as the "tarso-metatarsus."
The heart consists of four chambers, two auricles, and two ventricles; and not only are the right and left sides of the heart completely separated from one another, but there is no communication between the pulmonary and systemic circulations, as there is in Reptiles. There is only one aortic arch, the right. The blood is hot, having an average temperature of as much as 103o to 104o. The blood-corpuscles are oval and nucleated.
The respiratory organs are in the form of spongy cellular lungs, which are not freely suspended in pleural sacs; and the bronchi open on their surface into a number of air-sacs, placed in different parts of the body.
All birds are oviparous, none bringing forth their young alive, or being even ovo-viviparous. • All birds are, lastly, provided with an epidermic covering, so modified as to constitute what are known as feathers.
Professor Huxley's account of the method in which feathers are produced is so remarkably clear, that no apology is necessary for quoting it in its entirety. Feathers "are evolved within sacs from the surface of conical papillae of the dermis. The external surface of the dermal papilla, whence a feather is to be developed, is provided upon its dorsal surface with a median groove, which becomes shallower towards the apex of the papilla. From this median groove lateral furrows proceed at an open angle, and passing round upon the under surface of the papilla, become shallower, until, in the middle line, opposite the dorsal median groove, they become obsolete. Minor grooves run at right angles to the lateral furrows. Hence the surface of the papilla has the character of a kind of mould, and if it were repeatedly dipped in such a substance as a solution of gelatine, and withdrawn to cool until its whole surface was covered with an even coat of that substance, it is clear that the gelatinous coat would be thickest at the basal or anterior end of the median groove, at the median ends of the lateral furrows, and at those ends of the minor grooves which open into them; whilst it would be very thin at the apices of the median and lateral grooves, and between the ends of the minor grooves. If, therefore, the hollow cone of gelatine, removed from its mould, were stretched from within, or if its thinnest parts became weak by drying, it would tend to give way, along the inferior median line, opposite the rod-like cast of the median groove, and between the ends of the casts of the lateral furrows, as well as between each of the minor grooves, and the hollow cone would expand into a flat feather-like structure, with a median shaft, and a 'vane' formed of 'barbs ' and 'barbules.' In point of fact, in the development of a feather, such a cast of the dermal papilla is formed, though not in gelatine, but in the horny epidermic layer developed upon the mould, and as this is thrust outwards, it opens out in the manner just described. After a certain period of growth the papilla of the feather ceases to be grooved, and a continuous horny cylinder is formed, which constitutes the 'quill.' "
A typical feather (fig. 320) consists of the following parts: -1. The "quill" or " calamus" (a), which forms the basal portion of the feather, by which it is inserted in the skin on its own dermal papilla. It is the latest-formed portion of the feather, and consists of a hollow horny cylinder. 2. The "shaft" or "rachis" (b), which is simply a continuation of the quill, and which forms the central axis of the feather. The inferior surface of the shaft always exhibits a strong longitudinal groove, and it is composed of a horny external sheath, containing a white spongy substance, very like the pith of a plant. 3. The shaft carries the lateral expansions or "webs" of the feather, collectively constituting the "vane" or "vexillum." Each web is composed of a number of small branches, which form an open angle with the shaft, and which are known as the "barbs" (c). The margins of each barb are, in turn, furnished with a series of still smaller branches, which are known as the "barbules." As a general rule, the extremities of the barbules are hooked, so that those springing from the one side of each barb interlock with those springing from the opposite side of the next barb. In this way the barbs are kept in apposition with one another over a greater or less portion of the entire web. More or less of the barbs in the lower portion of the feather are, however, disunited, and not connected by their barbules; and these constitute what is known as the "down." In the Ostriches, Emeus, and some others, all the barbs of the feathers are disconnected, giving to the plumage of these birds its peculiarly soft character. At the point where the shaft joins the quill, and on the under side of the former, there is very generally found a small feather, known as the "accessory plume," or "after-shaft" ("hypo-rachis"). This is usually much the same in structure as the main feather, but considerably smaller. It may, however, be as large as the original feather, or it may be reduced to nothing more than a tuft of down.