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The fossil record demonstrates that birds are modern feathered dinosaurs, having evolved from earlier feathered dinosaurs within the theropod group, which are traditionally placed within the saurischian dinosaurs. The closest living relatives of birds are the crocodilians. Primitive bird-like dinosaurs that lie outside class Aves proper, in the broader group Avialae, have been found dating back to the mid-Jurassic period, around 170 million years ago. Many of these early "stem-birds", such as Archaeopteryx, were not yet capable of fully powered flight, and many retained primitive characteristics like toothy jaws in place of beaks, and long bony tails. DNA-based evidence finds that birds diversified dramatically around the time of the Cretaceous–Palaeogene extinction event 66 million years ago, which killed off the pterosaurs and all the non-avian dinosaur lineages. But birds, especially those in the southern continents, survived this event and then migrated to other parts of the world while diversifying during periods of global cooling. This makes them the sole surviving dinosaurs according to cladistics.
Some birds, especially corvids and parrots, are among the most intelligent animals; several bird species make and use tools, and many social species pass on knowledge across generations, which is considered a form of culture. Many species annually migrate great distances. Birds are social, communicating with visual signals, calls, and bird songs, and participating in such social behaviours as cooperative breeding and hunting, flocking, and mobbing of predators. The vast majority of bird species are socially monogamous (referring to social living arrangement, distinct from genetic monogamy), usually for one breeding season at a time, sometimes for years, but rarely for life. Other species have breeding systems that are polygynous (arrangement of one male with many females) or, rarely, polyandrous (arrangement of one female with many males). Birds produce offspring by laying eggs which are fertilised through sexual reproduction. They are usually laid in a nest and incubated by the parents. Most birds have an extended period of parental care after hatching. Some birds, such as hens, lay eggs even when not fertilised, though unfertilised eggs do not produce offspring.
Many species of birds are economically important as food for human consumption and raw material in manufacturing, with domesticated and undomesticated birds (poultry and game) being important sources of eggs, meat, and feathers. Songbirds, parrots, and other species are popular as pets. Guano (bird excrement) is harvested for use as a fertiliser. Birds prominently figure throughout human culture. About 120–130 species have become extinct due to human activity since the 17th century, and hundreds more before then. Human activity threatens about 1,200 bird species with extinction, though efforts are underway to protect them. Recreational birdwatching is an important part of the ecotourism industry.
Based on fossil and biological evidence, most scientists accept that birds are a specialised subgroup of theropod dinosaurs, and more specifically, they are members of Maniraptora, a group of theropods which includes dromaeosaurs and oviraptorids, among others. As scientists have discovered more theropods closely related to birds, the previously clear distinction between non-birds and birds has become blurred. Recent discoveries in the Liaoning Province of northeast China, which demonstrate many small theropod feathered dinosaurs, contribute to this ambiguity.
The consensus view in contemporary palaeontology is that the flying theropods, or avialans, are the closest relatives of the deinonychosaurs, which include dromaeosaurids and troodontids.Together, these form a group called Paraves. Some basal members of this group, such as Microraptor, have features which may have enabled them to glide or fly. The most basal deinonychosaurs were very small. This evidence raises the possibility that the ancestor of all paravians may have been arboreal, have been able to glide, or both. Unlike Archaeopteryx and the non-avialan feathered dinosaurs, who primarily ate meat, recent studies suggest that the first avialans were omnivores.
The Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx is well known as one of the first transitional fossils to be found, and it provided support for the theory of evolution in the late 19th century. Archaeopteryx was the first fossil to display both clearly traditional reptilian characteristics: teeth, clawed fingers, and a long, lizard-like tail, as well as wings with flight feathers similar to those of modern birds. It is not considered a direct ancestor of birds, though it is possibly closely related to the true ancestor.