According to secular paleontologists, dinosaurs arose in the mid-Triassic (dated c. 230 mya), and by the late-Jurassic there were archaic bird forms. These archaic birds were toothed, had long tails, usually long forearms, and claws on their wings. Allegedly these birds continued to evolve into more modern forms (toothless, robust wishbone, shorter forearms, truncated tails and loss of wing claws). But the evolutionary paradigm requires long periods of time for this to happen, and to go from therapod dinosaur to archaic bird to modern bird by the end (Maastrichtian age) of the Cretaceous (conventionally dated from 70–66 mya) is a quick sprint evolutionarily. But creation researchers have pointed out that even according to secular scientific literature sources, there have been modern-type birds found in Cretaceous layers. This raises questions about the validity of the supposed dinosaur-to-bird evolutionary hypothesis and is most likely the reason this contention is ridiculed and challenged, even to the point of claiming that creationists are interpreting the data incorrectly.
Creation scientists and researchers are often chided for claiming that there are modern birds found in Mesozoic sediments (specifically Cretaceous layers). From a creation perspective, we would hold that dinosaurs and both toothed and non-toothed birds existed at the same time, and that therapod dinosaurs did not evolve into archaic birds and then further evolve into modern birds. Therefore, we would not be surprised to find some evidence of all of these organisms being found together. In an evolutionary paradigm, it would take time for therapod dinosaurs to evolve into archaic birds, and then more time for those birds to transition to modern forms. Finding all three types of creatures in sedimentary layers from approximately the same time period would not be something the evolutionary model would expect. Are modern bird fossils in rock layers (mostly in the Cretaceous) that also contain dinosaur fossils?
Young-earth creationists often cite Dr. Carl Werner in his book Living Fossils, which contains citations from the secular literature and also interview statements made by evolutionary scientists and museum curators on this subject of modern birds found in Cretaceous layers. But some claim that the data cited from peer-reviewed science journals has either been interpreted wrongly by YECs or is old data that has been corrected or is too fragmentary and/or incomplete.
If evolutionary paleoanthropologists used that same criteria for fossils which are claimed to support human evolution (for example the fossils are too fragmentary and/or incomplete), they would have to conclude that many hominid fossils may not really be related to humans. But let’s get back to the subject at hand and examine some of the citations from Dr. Werner, and then some other citations from the secular literature on this subject. Of course, it should be pointed out that it is true that sometimes older journal articles have their data overturned by newer findings, or the family, genus, or species name assigned to a certain animal or plant may be revised by newer discoveries.
Werner’s Claims Via Stidham
Dr. Werner cites a 1998 Nature article by Thomas A. Stidham titled, “A Lower Jaw from a Cretaceous Parrot.” A few key quotes from this article include the following:
All known Cretaceous bird fossils representing modern higher taxa are from the aquatic groups Anseriformes, Gaviiformes, Procellariiformes and Charadriiformes. Here I describe a toothless avian dentary symphysis (fused jawbone) from the latest Cretaceous of Wyoming, United States. This symphysis appears to represent the oldest known parrot and is, to my knowledge, the first known fossil of a ‘terrestrial’ modern bird group from the Cretaceous. The existence of this fossil supports the hypothesis, based on molecular divergence data that most or all of the major modern bird groups were present in the Cretaceous. The discovery of this parrot in the Lance Formation indicates that the lineage leading to the parrot crown group was present by the end of the Cretaceous. If this parrot were a lory, as suggested by its morphology, the most recent common ancestor of the psittaciform crown group would be placed in the Cretaceous, as supported by molecular data. The occurrence of a parrot in the Cretaceous implies the presence of other closely related bird taxa in the Cretaceous, as also predicted by molecular divergence data. These data also indicate that modern bird groups, including parrots, may have been relatively unaffected by the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period.2
Now it should be noted that Stidham is referring to orders of birds. For example, Psittaciforme is the order parrots are in. In most (but not all) cases, order is above the level of the biblical “kind.” This particular fossil is also deemed “controversial”3 and possibly misidentified.4 But even more recent (2008) molecular and biogeographical data has been published supporting a possible Cretaceous age for several genera within the Psittaciforme order;5 therefore, the 1998 Nature article was not something written in isolation of other then-current or even subsequent secular data. This fossil has not been disproven to be a fossil Psittaciforme, but to be fair, this fossil located in Cretaceous layers is a contentious one in paleontological circles.
So, what about the claims Stidham made in the above 1998 Nature article (which Dr. Werner referenced) that several other researchers had documented modern bird families in Cretaceous layers? There were four orders mentioned, and Stidham listed several other journal papers that supposedly documented the claim. Let’s look at those.
A Tale of Four Orders
Anseriformes and Charadriiformes6 are mentioned as being modern birds found in the Cretaceous, but the only modern family that could possibly be associated with the fossils is Burhinidae (thick-knees and stone curlews) of the order Charadriiformes. Notice that the authors acknowledge that these bird fossils found in New Jersey are not like the extinct toothed-bird lineages.
Unlike most other Cretaceous birds, such as the Hesperornithiformes, Ichthyornithiformes, and Enantiornithiformes, which represent totally extinct lineages (Olson, 1985),7 the Cretaceous birds of New Jersey are of essentially modern aspect. However, there are no modern families of birds represented in the fauna. The differences among the fossils suggest that at least two orders are represented, but whether any or all of the species can be placed in modern orders is more difficult to say. This stems as much from the unsatisfactory state of the ordinal classification of modern birds . . . as from the incompleteness of the fossils. There are certain modern birds, for example the Burhinidae, with sufficient similarities to some of the Cretaceous fossils that there would be no problem with associating them in the same ordinal-level taxon, though it would be more difficult to say which other modern families should also be included.8
Of the order Gaviiformes, there are two examples of these modern-type birds found in Cretaceous layers. Both Polarornis and Neogaeornis would be considered loons. According to the authors of the papers describing Polarornis and Neogaeornis, respectively,
Loons are truly “living fossils” with little morphologic changes in their 66 million years of evolution. The earliest record of two genera of Late Cretaceous loons, Polarornis and Neogaeornis in the high southern latitude may have broad temporal and evolutionary significance.9
New fossil evidence indicates that Antarctica may have been an important center for the origination of extant bird groups before the K-T (Cretaceous/Tertiary) extinction. These aquatic birds lived at a key time during the last days of dinosaurs in the high latitudes until harsh conditions forced their dispersal northward in the early Tertiary.10
The identification of Neogaeornis as a loon is greatly strengthened by Chatterjee’s (1989)11 discovery of a partial skeleton of a loon (including skull parts) in the Upper Cretaceous Lopez de Bartodano Formation of Seymour Island, Antarctica. This specimen, which I have examined, is unquestionably a loon referable to the modern family Gaviidae, and may possibly even be referable to Neogaeornis.12
Neogaeornis is of startlingly modern aspect for a Mesozoic bird. It would suggest that the most recent common ancestor of penguins and loons existed prior to the Late Cretaceous. . . .
In summary, the foot-propelled diving bird Neogaeornis wetzeli, from the Upper Cretaceous of Chile, definitely does not belong among the Hesperornithiformes. Doubtless the Mesozoic age of this fossil is the principal reason for its ever having been associated with that order. Its similarities to modern loons are such that it may be placed in the order Gaviiformes and in the modern family Gaviidae.13
In the journal Nature, a 2005 paper reporting on the discovery of Vegavis made some interesting statements at the end of the abstract:
Here we identify a rare, partial skeleton from the Maastrichtian of Antarctica as the first Cretaceous fossil definitively placed within the extant bird radiation. Several phylogenetic analyses supported by independent histological data indicate that a new species, Vegavis iaai, is a part of Anseriformes (waterfowl) and is most closely related to Anatidae, which includes true ducks. A minimum of five divergences within Aves before the K/T boundary are inferred from the placement of Vegavis; at least duck, chicken and ratite bird relatives were coextant with non-avian dinosaurs.14
A more recent find in 2016 even documented a fossilized syrinx in a Vegavis iaai specimen.15 A syrinx is the vocal box of modern birds, which allows them to sing, squawk, and honk. This has significance as another recent (2017) analysis has placed both Polarornis and Neogaeornis within the Family Vegaviidae.16 The abstract of that paper boldly states,
Moreover, vegaviids represent the first avian lineage to have definitely crossed the K–Pg [ once called the K-T] boundary, supporting the idea that some avian clades were not affected by the end Mesozoic mass extinction event, countering previous interpretations. Recognition of Vegaviidae indicates that modern birds were diversified in southern continents by the Cretaceous and reinforces the hypothesis indicating the important role of Gondwana for the evolutionary history of Anseriformes and Neornithes as a whole.17
Procellariiformes (albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters) are the next order mentioned by Stidham. But here at least we have to recognize that the fossil record for Cretaceous members is very sparse, consisting of two taxa Tytthostonyx and Eopuffinus, respectively, but each comprise just single, incomplete bones.
In his book Living Fossils, Dr. Werner mentioned that Stickberger’s second edition Evolution textbook had the following quote: “These Cretaceous fossils are exclusively of aquatic birds or shore birds, a few already representative of modern groups such as flamingos, loons, cormorants and sandpipers, although some such as Hesperornis, still retained reptile-like teeth.”18
Even looking at the later third edition of Evolution by Stickberger it is noticed that a similar quote is in that same section (the “Amphibians, Reptiles and Birds” chapter). “However within a short geological period—by the early Cretaceous—a range of aquatic birds and shorebirds began to appear, making a transition to more modern forms. A few such fossils represent modern groups such as flamingos, loons, cormorants, and sandpipers, although some, such as Hesperornis, still retained reptile-like teeth.”19
So, when looking at all the above data, what can we conclude? Have the statements by creationists (including Dr. Werner) been factually incorrect or misleading? Is the contention true that there “are no fossils in dinosaur-bearing rocks of ancestral parrots and flamingos that are recognizable as belonging to those families or ‘kinds’”? Well the information they reported was that which has been in the paleontological literature, as documented above. Yes, there is some disagreement on these things, and that has been noted for a few of them in the quotes above. However, even within the past year, claims are still being made of recent fossil discoveries of modern-type birds in Cretaceous layers,20 so there is still ongoing debate. Thus, it is disingenuous for creationists to be accused of making up the data and/or to be criticized for making statements that have been previously made in journals by paleontologists, paleo-ornithologists, and geneticists.
To further illustrate the point, let us include some quotes from a 2004 Linnean Society of London publication, which makes similar claims but also points to the incompleteness of the fossil record and some interpretive difficulties.
As has been discussed in detail by others…, this fossil record has nonetheless been cited (at one time or another) in support of the presence of a large variety of neornithine lineages prior to the K–T boundary, including Pelecaniformes, Psittaciformes, Charadriiformes, Galliformes, Anseriformes, Strigiformes, Gaviiformes and Procellariiformes. Speculations on the basis of this fossil record abound and interpretations have been based on some, or all, of the described Cretaceous material.
In a recent compilation of the known Cretaceous modern birds, Hope (2002)21 has illustrated the problem inherent to this corner of the fossil record, namely that large numbers of fragmentary fossils of sometimes dubious age are proposed to occur within several of the extant orders and families. According to Hope (2002), the total number of Cretaceous fossils that can be assigned to Neornithes is around 50 specimens . . . of which no more than six records consist of more than isolated bones. . . . This collection of incomplete specimens is considered by Hope (2002), as well as by a number of preceding authors, to perhaps document the presence of at least seven modern orders of birds by the end of the Cretaceous (not including several specimens considered Neornithes incertae sedis).22 Material compiled by Hope (2002) ranges in age from Maastrichtian to Conacian, a time span of some 15 Myr prior to the K–T boundary.
Not only is the majority of this material incomplete, but there have also been problems accurately dating many of these fossils. One well-documented example concerns the remains of fossil birds collected from the Hornerstown and Navesink Formations of New Jersey, USA. First described in detail by Olson & Parris ([“The Cretaceous Birds of New Jersey”] 1987) these New Jersey birds have been the subject of much debate: Do these fossils from deposits forming part of the Cretaceous–Palaeocene Atlantic Coast of the USA testify directly to the presence of neornithine birds prior to the end of the Cretaceous? Because the stratigraphy of the New Jersey transitional greensand marls is highly complex, it remains unclear as to whether much of the bird material collected from the Hornerstown Formation in particular is actually latest Maastrichtian or earliest Palaeocene in age.23
So, are there modern-type birds or bird “kinds” as a creationist would term them,24 in the Cretaceous fossil record? We believe that the data listed here at least shows that some evolutionary paleontologists have stated as much and have done so even as recently as 2017. We can even agree that there is debate among the evolutionary community on this subject, but that is not the issue at hand. Some of the scientific literature clearly references modern birds as originating in the Cretaceous and used the (admittedly) sparse fossil record to support those claims. Even current secular museum websites make these kinds of statements:
The early representatives of today's lineages of birds can also be traced back to this remote era of our geological past. In several continents, rocks from the last part of the Cretaceous period have started to provide the remains of early shore-birds, ducks, and other more familiar birds. Their descendants are the true heirs of the magnificent dinosaurs that ruled the Earth tens of millions of years ago.25
Prestige, Preference and Preservation?
One last note on the fossil record of modern birds in the Cretaceous, and one that we creationists find interesting, is the acknowledgement that sampling bias, environmental preservation, and even the bird’s environment would all affect preservation. In a 2012 PLoS paper, authors Neil Brocklehurst et al. correlated the available data regarding Mesozoic bird fossils and made some revealing and pertinent comments on this topic in the “Mesozoic bird diversity,” “Habitat and Depositional Environment” and “Taphonomic Effects: Body Size and Skeletal Robustness” sections, respectively, of their paper:
Thus, the taxic diversity estimate is probably not an accurate representation of actual Mesozoic diversity. It should be noted that avian taxic diversity does not correlate as closely with the number of dinosaur-bearing formations known from each substage of the Mesozoic, a sampling metric shown to correlate with other dinosaur clades. It seems that in the case of Mesozoic birds, the effects of anthropogenic sampling biases are greater than those of the amount of sedimentary rock known from each time period. . . .
Another factor that might affect the quality of avian fossils is the environment of the locality in which they are preserved. Preservation should be best in low energy environments, where carcasses are less likely to be damaged by post-mortem transportation and/or erosion. Such environments include lakes, river floodplains, deltas and lagoons. The results of the analysis of the completeness of birds found in localities representing different environments indicate that birds from fluviolacustrine localities are more completely preserved than those from marine and other terrestrial localities.
Conversely, time periods which include a preponderance of geological formations representing high energy environments, would generally yield better quality sauropodomorph material than avian material. . . . Depending on the precise geological setting, it is perhaps easier to utterly destroy an avian carcass during transportation or via erosion than a sauropodomorph carcass: however it is also easier to rapidly and completely bury a small skeleton (resulting in high completeness scores), whereas it is much less likely that a 20–30 m long sauropod skeleton will be preserved intact. This suggests that Lagerstätten effects on observed diversity are likely to be far more severe for small delicate organisms such as birds than for large robust ones such as sauropods. . . . The mean completeness of birds from the Late Cretaceous is considerably lower than that of all Mesozoic birds, and less than that of Late Cretaceous sauropodomorphs indicating worse preservation of small delicate animals at this time.
The Cretaceous avian fossil record is also very patchy in terms of spatial sampling. This is particularly noticeable with regard to the tropics and high latitudes, with the majority of Mesozoic avian species (84%) being found between 30 and 60°North of the Equator. There are also entire regions, such as Africa and India, which have produced no diagnostic avian material. The relatively poor sampling of Gondwanan continents is particularly noteworthy given that some biogeographic analyses… have suggested that Neornithes originated in the Southern Hemisphere. Clearly, it is unrealistic to claim that the Cretaceous fossil record is adequate for determining the genuine absence of Neornithes if it transpires that this clade originated and initially radiated at high latitudes or in the tropics, or in regions such as Africa.26
They’re Digging In The Wrong Place!
What then is so interesting about these observations? One is that the sampling of bird fossils in the Cretaceous is not being carried out in areas where they might be expected to be in greater abundance. Some of this is in part, due to the remoteness and expense of digging in these locations. Undoubtedly a part of that equation might also be related to the fact that a dinosaur find is much more newsworthy (and generates more grant money) and is less controversial to the evolutionary paradigm than looking for bird fossils in those layers? Also, bird skeletons with their hollow bones are fragile and tend to disarticulate (break apart) in high-energy environments. Additionally, birds in strictly terrestrial and marine environments, which today mostly consist of very quiet conditions, show poorer preservation, and perhaps even no preservation at all! The point will not be belabored here, but is this not what Flood geologists have postulated for why there is a lack of human, mammal, and bird fossils in the pre-Flood era sedimentary layers? Instead, some birds were more likely to be buried quickly by the rapidly-accumulating Flood sediments, including those that were preserved exquisitely in Lagerstätten deposits (quick sediment burial in anoxic conditions). However, most birds would have fled the rising Floodwaters and eventually drowned, and then rather than being buried were eaten by scavengers or decomposed.
Ultimately then we need to ask again, were there modern-type birds in Cretaceous layers? Yes, and several recent paleontological papers state this. Is there any justification in the critique that creationists are wrong in stating this? No, not when several well-recognized evolutionary paleo-ornithologists have written papers on this very subject.
Clearly there is debate in the scientific journals and the fossil record is scarce and fragmentary for Cretaceous bird fossils. Ironically though, that scarceness is what Flood geologists would expect. The Flood’s high-energy initial inundation of the continents as indicated by the almost global erosion surface across the pre-Flood rocks would have swept plants and animals away, including the ecological zones they had lived in. Yet the mobility of birds and mammals, and their awareness of danger, may have given them time to flee the rising waters. The net result would be no burial and preservation of birds and mammals in the initial Flood deposits. Many of the birds and mammals swept away would have been eaten by scavengers or rotted. Only a few would have been fossilized in later Flood deposits as the waters successively deposited them.