By: Zia Mahmood Minhas
Birds are Allah’s marvelous creatures designed for aerial life. These are warm blooded animals with feathers and four limbs i.e. wings and legs. Forelimbs are for flying while legs are used for perching, ground movement or holding food. They have beaks with no teeth. The heart is four chambered. Since flying requires higher level of energy, the metabolic rate is very high. The skeleton of birds is light but strong. Birds have great diversity and are found virtually everywhere on earth. Estimated species in this class are about 9600.
Birds have been mentioned in many verses of the Qur’an:
أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّـهَ يُسَبِّحُ لَهُ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَالطَّيْرُ صَافَّاتٍ ۖ كُلٌّ قَدْ عَلِمَ صَلَاتَهُ وَتَسْبِيحَهُ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ عَلِيمٌ بِمَا يَفْعَلُونَ٤١
Do you not see how all that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies Allah, and the birds with wings outspread? Each has learnt his prayer and his glorification .And Allah knows full well what they do.
(Soorah An -Noor 24:41)
وَمَا مِن دَابَّةٍ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَا طَائِرٍ يَطِيرُ بِجَنَاحَيْهِ إِلَّا أُمَمٌ أَمْثَالُكُم ۚ مَّا فَرَّطْنَا فِي الْكِتَابِ مِن ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِمْ يُحْشَرُونَ٣٨
There is no creature that crawls on the face of earth, no bird on the wings, but they are nations like you. We have not neglected any matter in this Book and then to Allah they shall be mustered.
(Soorah Al-An’am 6: 38)
قَالَ رَبُّنَا الَّذِي أَعْطَىٰ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلْقَهُ ثُمَّ هَدَىٰ٥٠
Our Lord is He Who gave each thing its likeness in form and then guided it.
(Soorah Ta Ha 20:50)
Birds build the nests for laying of eggs, incubation and rearing young ones after hatching. This activity is undertaken in breeding season. It is inspiring to see birds in action during this period. They undertake nest-building like an architect and building engineer. They toil very hard and mostly the partners take active part in nest building. The building material is collected mostly from the surrounding area .The site is selected keeping in view safety against inclement weather and predators. They are a bit secretive while building, not to attract the attention of adversaries. All species build similar types of nests. How they build same types of nest while they have no chance of technology transfer from parents who abandon them at early age to lead an independent life? Scientists have no answer except that nest building is incorporated in their genetic code. As Muslims we believe it is Allah’s guidance which enables the birds to build the nests without any prior coaching.
The nests are built in five shapes i.e.
Some Interesting Facts About Bird Nests
-The Montezuma oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma ) birds build their nests on high tree canopies. They are colonial breeders and dozens of nests are built on the same location. Maximum recorded number is 172.
– The Eurasian penduline tits (Remiz consobrinus) build elaborate hanging nests. These are tightly woven and so strong that they have been used as purses and children shoes.
-The Caspian terns build nests known as scrape. It is a typically shallow depression lined with stone, shells and vegetation.
-The Harris hawk often builds its nest on high thorny cacti plants. In this way it tries to evade the predators. To avoid hurting by the thorns it stands on the back of its talons.
-The Australian Mallee fowl (Liepoa ocellata) are ground dwelling birds. They are shy and freeze when confronted. The males build nesting mounds which are huge and may measure up to 16×36 feet. These are built with a combination of sand, leaves and twigs.
-Edible nests or white nests are the most expensive food in the world and may cost as much as 4500 dollars per pound in Japan and China. Cave dwelling birds swift lets (Aerodramus fuciphagus) build their nests in high altitude limestone mountain caves. They build nests from strands of their gummy saliva which hardens on exposure to air. The nests are built on vertical walls, hence dangerous and tedious to harvest.
These nests are delicacy and are considered to have miraculous nutritional and medicinal value against anti-aging, anti-cancer and enhancing libido. These are used as additives in drinks and cosmetics also. These properties have not been proved scientifically.
Some Fascinating Facts About Birds
-The biggest bird on earth is ostrich .It cannot fly but runs at a tremendous speed up to 43 miles per hour. It weighs on an average 220-350 pounds and attains the height up to 9 feet.
-With weight of about 2.5 grams and wing span of about 5 centimeters, bee humming bird is
the smallest bird. Humming birds flap their wings very rapidly i.e. over 50 times per second. The wing movement is so fast that it appears as a blur to eyes. Its eggs are smaller than coffee beans. They are the only bird species that can hover, fly up and down and backwards.
-Wandering albatross is the largest flying bird and has body length of 4.5 feet. It has a wing span of up to 12 feet and weighs 30-35 lbs. It is a sea bird and can stay in the air for many hours without flapping the wings. It can travel 10,000 kilometers in a single journey and circumvent the globe in 46 days. It spends most of its life in air and lands for food and reproduction only. It can sleep while flying.
-Peregrine falcon is the fastest flier. While attacking the prey it dives at the speed of 322 kilometers/hour.
-The trumper swan perhaps has the greatest weight among the flying birds. It weighs 37 pounds.
-Whistling swan (Cygnus columbianus ) is the most feathered bird. It has up to 25,000 feathers
-The secretary bird mostly feeds on snakes. It tackles its prey in an interesting way. It attacks the snake with its claws and keeps the snake at a safe distance with its feathers. Both these organs have no or a few blood vessels hence there is no harm if the snake bites the legs or feathers. While biting the snake empties its venom sac. Thus it becomes harmless victim of the bird and gets devoured.
-Helmeted horn bill is a strange looking bird found in forests of Borneo. It has wing span of about six feet. Its call resembles a human laughing manically. The bird is hunted for its huge red beak sold as ivory. Excessive hunting has resulted in almost extinction.
-The hoatzin bird’s main diet is vegetation and it has digestive system like ruminants. They spend lot of time lying and digesting food like cows. Its body smells like cow dung.
-The flamingos can bend their legs both ways.
-Almost all birds sleep on one leg. This does not upset their balance since the body weight is concentrated in one leg which enables them to maintain this delicate balance.
-Red billed queleas is the most numerous species. Its population is estimated to be at one billion It forms enormous flocks and one such flock had more than 80 million birds.
-Pigeon has its eyes mounted laterally on the head. They can view 340 degrees, except in the back of head. The Victoria crown pigeon (Goura victoria) is the largest pigeon species and is roughly of chicken size.
The homing or carrier Pigeons are acknowledged for their prowess of flying long distances and returning to their base. When confused regarding the direction, it soars and corrects the direction. This capacity was used in older times to send messages from far off places, battlefronts and spying.
-A falcon can see a 10 centimeter object from a distance of 1.5 kilometers. It can see sharp images even when diving at 100 km per hour speed. The vision of hawk is four times better than humans.
Flight of Birds
Flight is the primary mean of locomotion of birds. Flight is, in itself a miracle of Allah. Birds while flying overcome the force of gravity which pulls everything in the air towards earth. Allah has referred to the phenomenon of flight of birds in the Soorahs An-Nahl and al-Mulk.
أَلَمْ يَرَوْا إِلَى الطَّيْرِ مُسَخَّرَاتٍ فِي جَوِّ السَّمَاءِ مَا يُمْسِكُهُنَّ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗإِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ﴿٧٩﴾
Have they not observed the birds made subservient in the sphere of sky, who only Allah can control? In this are signs for a people of faith.
(Soorah an-Nahl 16:79)
أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا إِلَى الطَّيْرِ فَوْقَهُمْ صَافَّاتٍ وَيَقْبِضْنَ ۚ مَا يُمْسِكُهُنَّ إِلَّا الرَّحْمَـٰن ۚ إِنَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ بَصِير١٩ٌ
Have they not observed the birds above them, with wings out-stretched or elapsed? None can restrain them but All-Merciful. He sees full well all that exists.
(Soorah Al-Mulk 67:19)
Birds while flying have full control on the movements, maneuvering and the process is performed swiftly with quite ease.
Birds have been provided with special features by Allah which facilitates the complex phenomenon of flight. These include the followings:
-The skeleton of birds consists of light weight bones. They have large air filled cavities which are connected with the respiratory system. The spine of birds is flexible and the ribs are flattened. The sternum is keeled for the attachment of flight muscles. The forelimbs are modified into wings.
-There are special muscles, the pectoralis and the supracordeus for flight operation
-Birds have one of the most complex respiratory system of all animal groups. Seventy five percent (75%) of the fresh air bypasses the lungs and flows directly into a posterior air sac which extends from the lungs. It connects with the air spaces in the bones. The rest twenty five percent (25%) of the air goes to the lungs and is consumed in respiratory process. When the bird exhales the stored air from the posterior air sac is simultaneously forced into the lungs. The lungs thus receive constant supply of fresh air during inhalation and exhalation, which facilitates the flight process.
-The feathers or plumage facilitate flight. They also provide insulation that helps body temperature regulation. Feathers are critical for survival of the birds and they carry on the maintenance and manicuring on regular basis.
-The tops of bird wings are curved and the bottoms are flat. This shape produces lower pressure on the top as compared to the bottom. The difference in the air pressure produces lift force that enables the bird to rise in the air by beating its wings.
Flight is a process which is inculcated in birds’ instinct by Allah. They don’t learn it through hit and trial method. The chicks just launch their body into air and start flying with ease without hitting the ground. They are not aware that their flight is subject to many forces i.e.
In order to flight to be meaningful, these forces have to be balanced.
The air moving rapidly by around the bird’s wings produces the lift force. The bird bends its wings in order to obtain greater lift force. The air flowing over the wings is thus accelerated. If it inclines its wings upwards at a steep angle, air cannot easily flow, the upper parts of the wings and the bird loses speed and stalls. Through Allah’s inspiration, the birds make use of the principles of aerodynamics as they fly.
Migration of Birds
Migration of birds is a phenomenon where birds undertake an annual journey. The mysterious disappearance of birds from the breeding grounds was noted by earlier scientists but the phenomenon was attributed to hibernation in winter. Now studies have established that a large number of bird species migrate in winter to milder climatic zones thousands of miles away. They fly over land, sea, desert and mountains without losing way or vigor. Not all birds migrate but more than 5000 species are reported to have adopted migration as means of survival. From generations they gather in flocks, take same routes for round trip and return almost to their original habitat.
Why do birds migrate?
- Competition for food and nesting sites in the breeding areas force the bird to migrate to greener pastures.
- High concentration of population in breeding ground attracts predators and diseases.
- Birds avoid harsh winter weather or high summer temperatures by migration to temperate climates.
This is for survival of species as inculcated by Allah in the birds.
Adaptations for migration
- Storage of energy through accumulation of fat.
- Molting before migration to have new strong feathers.
- Flying in flocks to reduce energy used in flying and reduce risk of predation.
Migrating bird may follow the same route for return journey or they may use another loop for the same. Change of route is made for possibly the following reasons:
1. To avoid harsh climatic conditions on ground.
2. Changing conditions of food and water availability.
3. To avail favorable winds which make the journey less exhaustive.
They however return to same place or very close to it. While flying they choose the shortest route on land. If they have to cross sea, they prefer to follow route with minimum distance over water bodies. Rufus humming bird passes winter in southern Mexico. It uses pacific coast for northbound spring journey. In fall it takes inland route to returns south.
Wonders of Migration
- Shear waters are seabirds with 6 genera and 37 species. Every year millions of sooty shear waters (Puffinus griseus) migrate from the breeding grounds of New Zealand and Chile to northern hemisphere and back. In this round trans-equatorial trip they fly 65000 kilometers covering 500-900 kilometers per day. It is the longest animal migration, completed in six months. This trip across Pacific Ocean is in a giant figure of eight (8).
The meat of shear waters (also called mutton bird locally) is sold in retail stores throughout New Zealand. They are pulled out of burrows for meat and slaughtered. This phenomenon known as mutton birding is leading to decline of population.
- One manx shear water is estimated to have flown 8 millions km during its over 50 years life span.
- The arctic terns hold the long distance migration record. They move from its Arctic breeding grounds to Antarctic non- breeding areas. One arctic tern tagged as chick flew from British east coast and reached Australia in 3 months covering 22,000 kilometers over sea.
- Bar tailed goodwit is on record to make the longest nonstop flight of 11500 kilometers from Alaska to New Zealand without food or water
- Northern wheat eater (Oenanthe oenanthe) is a small migratory insectivorous bird. It makes one of the longest journeys for a small bird from Africa to Northern Hemisphere.
- Amur falcon (family falconidae) is a bird of prey. It migrates from East Asia to Africa.
- Geese show a fantastic teamwork, planning and sacrifice during long journey for migration. While flying geese form a special V shaped formation, lead bird flying ahead of the flock. Each bird flaps its wings and creates uplift for the birds that follow. By this technique the whole flock increases their flying range by 70%.When a goose falls out of formation, it quickly moves back into formation to avail the advantage of quicker flight using less energy.
The lead bird which has to endure the drag and resistance of flying alone gets tired. It reverts back into the formation to regain strength by getting advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front. The geese flying in formation, honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
When a member gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help it and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.
Mystery of Migration, the Qur’an’s Version
Bird migration is a mysterious phenomenon and scientists have not been able to understand it fully though elaborate research projects have been undertaken such as:
- How birds travel long distances over land, mountains deserts, plains and seas without losing way and returns to original abodes?
- Timing is also puzzling. At almost at same time birds start grouping for migration as if there is some clock fitted in their body.
- How they are able to bear extreme stressful conditions over long span of time and distance?
Various explanations have been put forward i.e.
- Navigation and finding way is in their genetic code and instinct.
- They find the way because they can detect magnetic fields.
- They use sun compass.
- They use olfactory cues(sense of smell)
- Their ability to recognize habitats from mental maps.
- They recognize geographical signs on ground.
None of these explanations hold goods since:
-What is the source of the genetic code and presumed mental maps?
-Birds have no system of educating their young ones since they abandon them for independent life at an early age.
-They have rudimentary brain which cannot go for research of shortest ways, read sun compass. Moreover many species fly at night or in cloudy and foggy weather when there is no sunlight.
-Birds are known to have poor sense of smell, hence the utilization of olfactory cues may be ruled out.
-Birds were subjected to disorientation experiments to check their behavior afterwards. They were displaced from their normal starting points. Some were caged while young and then released. Transmitters were attached to their bodies to confuse them and magnetic rings were attached to their bodies to vary the magnetic field. In all cases the birds followed the same route to reach their winter quarters previously unknown to them.
In the absence any tangible explanation we have only rational option to accept that this is divine guidance from Allah which enables birds to accomplish the amazing act of migration with unbelievable perfection.