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The first birds had sharp teeth, long bony tails and claws on their hands. The clear distinction we see between living birds and other animals did not exist with early birds. In fact, they were more like small dinosaurs than they were like any bird today.

The earliest known bird is the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx, but birds had evolved before then. A range of birds with more advanced features appeared soon after Archaeopteryx. One group gave rise to modern birds in the Late Cretaceous. So, for a time, bird-like dinosaurs, primitive birds and early modern birds all co-existed.

Two examples of early birds are:

Archaeopteryx lithographica


Archaeopteryx
Archaeopteryx drawing by Dr Anne Musser Image: Dr Anne Musser
© Australian Museum

Archaeopteryx has a number of features not found in modern birds, including:

  1. jaws with teeth
  2. claws on hands
  3. long, bony tail

Archaeopteryx diagram
Archaeopteryx has a number of features not found in modern birds, including: jaws with teeth claws on hands long, bony tail Image: Illustration
© Australian Museum

Confuciusornis sanctus

Confuciusornis was an early bird that lived 125 million years ago in China. It had many primitive features including claws on the wings. However, it had more advanced features than Archaeopteryxas it was one of the earliest known birds to have a shortened bony tail and a toothless beak. It also had feathers suited for flight.