We admire birds for their beauty, songs, and the grace of their near miraculous ability to fly, but are birds important to the ecosystem?
Yes! Birds provide many direct and indirect contributions to the environment (often called “Ecosystem Services”).
- Many ecologically important plants require pollination by birds, especially hummingbirds, in order to successfully reproduce.
- Many species of conifers are spread largely by birds such as Clark’s Nutcrackers and Pinyon Jays, and fruit-eating birds likewise aid the germination and spread of hundreds of species of plants and trees.
- Hawks and owls are great consumers of pests such as rodents, while flycatchers and their allies consume many tons of insects each year.
In addition, bird watching and related eco-tourism is a major economic force in many parts of the country. On a less quantitative level, birds provide humans with pleasure, joy, and spiritual inspiration merely by their presence.
Birds are also excellent indicators of environmental health. Before “the canary in the coal mine” was a cliché, underground workers really did take canaries with them to provide early detection against carbon monoxide and other gases. In the natural world, because they are relatively abundant, easily observed, and have a rapid metabolism and high position on the food chain, birds can provide clues to otherwise difficult to detect processes. Declines in Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles provided important information about the dangers and spread of DDT and heavy metals. Today, changes in bird populations can tell us a great deal about the impacts of climate change, drought, weather, and habitat change in the United States and around the world.
But perhaps the most important reason to study birds is to further our understanding of the ecosystems that support all life on earth, including humans. To continue to live sustainably and have a healthy planet, we must understand how the natural systems on which we depend function. Birds are a critical element to nearly every ecosystem on earth, and their fate is intertwined with ours.
Photo Credits: Top of Page, Keith Williams; Right Column Top, academia.dk; Right Column Bottom, Smudge 9000