Do Birds Matter?

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California Condor

I have had this website, for 20 years now. I started it just before my retirement from a university where I taught ornithology and ecology. Now, in my leisure years, I write this blog, give lectures, lead field trips, write articles and books, volunteer, garden, birdwatch, read, and so forth to keep my mind active and stay more or less up to date in the field of ornithology. I’ve been involved in the world of birds for about 50 years, and you would think I’d know everything by now. Nope. New techniques and new equipment lead to new discoveries nearly every day. So I keep learning although it’s nearly impossible to keep up.

I maintain and write a weekly blog not just to entertain and enlighten myself, but to educate people about birds and their importance to our ecosystems. Birds are, for many people, an entry point to the understanding of nature, ecology, and conservation. If we are to preserve what is left of our natural world, we need people who comprehend and appreciate it, especially those who have the authority to make policy and laws. So I try to do my part because I am a science educator at heart and am saddened by what I see happening to ecosystems and species across the planet.

Since I was born, the numbers of birds in the U.S. has decreased by about half. Many bird species I used to see are rare or unusual now. Seventy-seven U.S. bird species have been classified by the IUCN as endangered or threatened.

If you are a birdwatcher, you see birds as having an intrinsic value and you would like to see them protected, just because. But that’s not very practical. Most people want to see practical values, but are birds practical? Can our governmental representatives make an argument for birds to their constituents? Can CEOs justify birds to their shareholders? And many working people understandably care more about making a decent living than protecting birds. Birders are not

Piping Plover

a particularly influential group, but we can educate others.

There happens to be more than sufficient evidence to prove that birds are valuable to our world. Birds control insect and rodent populations. They clean up carcasses. Many plants require pollination by birds. Many species of plants are spread primarily by birds, whether the pine seed is buried, or mistletoe seed passed through the gut. Bird watching and related ecotourism is a major economic force in many parts of the world. And like the canary in the coal mine, birds serve as ecological indicators. They are relatively abundant, easy to observe, active during the day, have a high metabolism, and are near the top of the food chain, so birds can point out problems we would not otherwise notice, such as the dangers of DDT and heavy metals as did pelicans and eagles decades ago. Changes in bird migration patterns are today giving us clues about the effects of climate change.

But should we have to justify birds? All of us have been transformed in some way by watching a bird in flight. We feel our heartbeat rising while all our thought focuses on the flapping wings. We just feel privileged to

Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo

experience the natural world that has existed far longer than we have – the wonderful world of wild birds. They do matter.

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