So first, what is pollination? Pollination is the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma, which is essential for plant reproduction. Pollination carried out by birds is known as ornithophily. New research shows that birds do twice as much pollinating as insects do.
Birds seek energy-rich nectar by visiting flowers that have the nectar hidden deep inside. As birds try to reach it, pollen sticks to their head, neck, back and wings, which is then transferred to other flowers when they visit them. Pollen grains will often stick together in clumps which increases the efficiency of pollination. As a result, the fertilized flowers will yield fruits and seeds!
SUPER SPREADERS FOR GOOD
That birds are so vital to plants is nothing new, but a recent study made the significant discovery that birds pollinate a wider variety of plants than previously thought. It is now known that hummingbirds pollinate more than 1,000 species of plants, and that some other bird species, such as sunbirds and honeyeaters, are also the only pollinators of a significant number of plants.
Pollination is a perfect example of mutualism, a situation where two species evolve in tandem for mutual benefit. This can be seen with Passiflora flowers and the sword-billed hummingbird. This remarkable hummer derives its name from its impressive beak, which is extremely long, and often longer than the rest of the bird’s body. The other part of this partnership, the Passiflora mixta, is a species of flower edemic to the cloud forests of the Americas. It has long, tubular parts containing nectar and pollen, which are so long and narrow in fact that no insects can get to the pollen without getting trapped in the tube and drowning in nectar. Along comes the sword-billed hummer and in goes the thin blade, matching the length of the corolla exactly.
Evidence shows that the tubes of Passiflora flowers have grown in direct proportion to the length of the hummer’s bill over time, ensuring food competition is redundant for the hummer, and potentially harmful to other birds or insects that may visit. However, this creates an evolutional asymmetry, a dangerous situation: if anything catastrophic were to happen to the bird, like climate change or habitat loss leading to their extinction, the plants would also be gone forever not long after.
THE FORGOTTEN FORESTS
Increasing awareness of the role some bird species play in forest regeneration enables rewilding organizations to utilize this deeper understanding to achieve their aims more efficiently and effectively. Foraging corvids like Eurasian jays and Clark’s nutcrackers cache tens of thousands of tree nuts and seeds in the soil during the fall for their winter harvests, only to ‘forget’ a few thousand nuts and seeds that then grow into the next generation of trees. Sunbirds, honeyeaters, flowerpeckers and even swifts in Asia and Europe pollinate many plants essential for forest regeneration, such as orchids, vines, and epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants without harming them and provide perfect nesting habitats. Birds disperse the seeds through their droppings, helping to create new plant communities elsewhere, ensuring forests are less fragmented.
WAYS TO HELP US
As many of us are now aware, climate change is affecting pollination in a few ways. Rising temperatures means some plants will bloom earlier or later than usual, disrupting the timing of pollination by birds. Changing rainfall patterns also affect the availability of nectar and pollen, making it difficult for birds to find food.
But there are several things we can do to help birds perform their pollination eco-services:
- Plant bird-friendly gardens - this is a sure-fire way to attract all the key species, including mammals and insects, for a fantastically balanced habitat.
- Lobby your elected officials to maintain parks and other green urban spaces, and reject development projects that don’t incorporate ecological benefits in their design.
- Chat to neighbors and create corridors of native vegetation to prevent fragmented habitats.
- Reduce our use of pesticides and herbicides.
- Learn more about less invasive methods of cultivation like no-dig gardens to ensure the soil holds all the vital nutrients essential for plant growth.
- If you don’t have the land, then support conservation organizations either financially or through volunteering to help them conserve bird populations.
While everyone thinks of insects as the heroes of pollination, birds are a vital part of the process as well. Thanks to new studies, we are learning more about their importance and the growing need to protect our feathered friends. Share this information with others, spread awareness of the role birds play, and try to contribute in conservation efforts as much as possible. These steps can have a watershed impact on your local wildlife and their access to those life-giving bits of nectar.