Birds in the Dawn by Rex Burress

Attention Audubon bird watchers! So you arose early in the morning to catch the first light of dawn to behold the singing bird chorus! So your bird trek took you up the Feather River Canyon to see the Dipper birds dashing from rock to rock in the rapids of Yellow Creek. So you see a flash of red and probe your cherished field guide to verify a Ruby Crowned Kinglet. You lift your precious binoculars for a closer look at that soaring hawk.

You travel to Arizona to see the Trogon, or to Trinidad to see the Oil Birds. Maybe you went to Arkansas swamps in hopes of seeing an alleged living Ivory-billed Woodpecker. You are a bird watcher, and attuned to the birds of the 21st Century.

So have you seen the bird Diatryma? Perhaps you havenít since that giant, wingless, eight-foot spectacle featuring a huge beak on a three-foot head that lived about 60 million years ago. It reigned from the Paleocene to the Eocene Epoch.

We would never know the giant "Bird of Terror" lived if fossils hadnít been found, first in France in 1855 where it was called Gastornis, and then a similar skeleton was found in Wyoming and named Diatryma by paleontologist Edward Cope in 1876. They placed the land dweller in the order Gruiformes, which today includes cranes, rails, and coots.

The amazing thing about this fossil is that the head is very massive with a toucan-like bill and the large feet are equipped with powerful talons. A debate rages about whether they were carnivorous birds able to smash smaller animals with that beak, or herbaceous with the bill used to tear into vegetation. It is so hard to pin down facts when dealing with faint fossil clues. The heavily clawed feet would suggest that Diatryma was indeed a meat-eating "Bird from Hell," as some have indicated. Diatryma expanded after the dinosaurs were gone at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago and disappeared 25 million years later, according to our interpretation of fossil evidence. The Eocene was a tropical world and the "Dawn of Recent Life," as I gleaned from the book, "Beasts of Eden," by David Rains Wallace.

I mention these items because it is so intriguing about how birds have arrived at the present state, not to mention the possible reptile connection and the wonder of flight. Today we do our bird watching by observing some of the ~9000 species on earth, little aware of those faint corridors of time when life began and when the feather came. Was the accidental discovery of the winged fossil Archaeopteryx that lived 150 million years ago in the Dinosauric Jurassic Period the dawn of birds?

We look at pictures of those alien-looking fossils and feel an astonishment at the reality of winged reptiles, or Diatryma, or Iberomesornis, a sparrow sized, toothed bird of the Cretaceous, or the Foalulavis, earliest bird fossil with good flight maneuverability discovered in Spain. Dinornis was the largest wingless bird that ever lived and it existed in New Zealand until the early 1800's!!! Dare I mention the fossil signs of dinosaurs...and the giant mammals...that roamed the very land we now live on along with untold unknown other life forms dribbling down through the ages before dying out?

So the next time you go down by the riverside to admire the ethereal flight of the Great Egret, or gaze with admiration as the Bald Eagle powers its way overhead, give a thought to the underlying structure that culminated in the bird beauty we see today. Know that in a former time there was a beginning now glazed with mystery, vaguely indicated by a few indistinct fossils that suggest strange birds once existed so long ago we can hardly comprehend the vastness.

We can but wonder about the processes that produced the Annaís Hummingbird we see buzzing around the Feather Riverís red-flowering eucalyptus. Did that tiny bird exist before the river etched its way out of the Sierras? Perhaps we will never know, but we have the human specialness of being able to enjoy it today and interpret it as beautiful even without knowing all of the history.