A world without birds would be very strange. For a start, it probably wouldn’t last very long, at least not in the way we know it. Birds are essential to the health of the planet, and today we take a look at some of the parts they play on this world stage.
Ancient art and culture show us birds have inspired humans for centuries; they provided the inspiration for the technology of flight, clothing accessories in the form of zips based on the interlocking of feather barbules, they even gave Darwin some pretty good ideas about evolution with his studies of finches in the Galápagos. Birds have detected poisonous gases in mines, helped us convey messages to soldiers and alerted armies to the arrival of enemy aircraft in wars. More recently, the mental and physical health benefits that can be reaped when we go outside in the fresh air to hear them sing has been well documented and now features as patient rehabilitation in many parts of the world. But their presence does more than make us do good things and feel good. They literally help keep the world turning.
[Birds] gave Darwin some pretty good ideas about evolution.
At your service
The term “ecosystem” was first used by English botanist Arthur Tansley, a pioneer of ecology and founding figure in the establishment of nature reserves across the British Isles. Prior to his 1935 paper that posited his ecosystem concept, the world of ecology focussed more on the individual communities that different species shared geographically; but Tansley’s concept went further, bringing focus to the importance of materials being transferred between these communities, and the repercussions each and every transfer had.
In human-centric terms, animals that provide these transfers are performing something dubbed “ecosystem services”, a typically mundane title for something so fundamentally important. A very specific example is that of woodpeckers: these birds are known as cavity nesters – they make holes to raise their young in. Tending to use them for only one breeding season, the cavities can remain for many years, providing nesting and roosting habitat for other birds who cannot make their own cavities, and mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects, all with their part to play in seed dispersal, nutrient supply and decay assistance, providing rich soil for more trees to grow.
Out to sea, flocks of gannets, razorbills, skuas, and our good friends the blue-footed boobies are part of the vast number of birds who spend their days fishing and flying, returning to the cliffs and shores of land they call home to rest and breed. Where there are sea birds, there is guano, the nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich waste matter generated after digesting so much fish. This cakes the cliffsides and eventually will leach into the waters, which then goes on to provide nutrients to coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. Guano is also a powerful fertiliser and used by human communities who live near sea bird colonies. Indeed, the Incas valued it so highly that they declared it central to the survival of their civilisation. It could be said that one of the world’s largest empires was built on poop.
We use the natural environment for many things like materials for homes to live in, medicines, and food. The ecosystems that provide these raw materials also generate the air we breathe and keep our climate stable, and can transform pollutants into nutrients. As with all things, one type of animal fills a niche that another type of animal could not, and to lose it would be disastrous in many ways, ones that are instantly noticeable, and ones that take much longer for their ripples to reach us. But they will still reach us.
The birds and the bees
Pollinators like bees and other flying insects are responsible for the majority of the world’s plant reproduction, but birds are also pollinators, with more than 900 species including hummingbirds and honeyeaters propagating life this way. A quarter of all of the sage family plants in South Africa, for instance, are pollinated by birds. The flowers of these plants lack scent, meaning they are bypassed by the insects entirely, but birds favour sight over smell.
It could be said that one of the world’s largest empires was built on poop.
Seed dispersal is different when carried out by birds, due to the simple fact that they have wings. When a bear eats fruit and then those undigested seeds pass through the bear and out the other end, it’s not usual for those seeds to be deposited much further than from where they began. With birds, the seeds could be left many miles from their origin point, meaning they have the potential to rejuvenate ecosystems that have suffered, and will even carry seeds across the waters to new land masses.
It’s in the trees
Coming in at around 11 inches high, Clark’s nutcrackers are solely responsible for a lot of the forests covering the mountains in the west of North America. Whitebark pine, a tree that is prolific across the entire range, lives from the base of the foothills all the way up to the treeline. The roots of these trees hold the sloping soil in place, preventing erosion. As their canopy helps shade the snow, when the warm weather returns, they help the snow melt over time rather than what’s known as a sudden springtime flush, reducing the risk of avalanches. Clark’s nutcrackers feasts on the pine nuts of this tree, using their long bills to tease out the seeds and then store them in the ground for the winter, at the exact right depth for the seed to germinate. Missed seeds mean more trees.
Plague and pestilence
When Mormons settled Utah in 1847, they set to work planting their crops almost immediately. But what they didn’t factor in were the clouds of ravenous crickets who descended on the corn fields the next year. Many crops were consumed as the settlers watched on in horror, but then suddenly the sky was filled with gulls, each snapping up beakfuls of crickets for hours until they were all gone. Hailed as a miracle, the California gull was eventually made the state bird in 1955. Subsequent ethnological finds have discovered that Native Americans would harvest the crickets in much the same way as a corn harvest, roasting their bodies and then grinding them into a powder which would then form the basis of cakes and biscuits. High in calories and very nutritious, a diet of crickets is actually more beneficial than corn. The Native Americans would therefore have viewed the arrival of these crickets as their own godsend, but, you know, progress.
Other pest control benefits from birds are universal: coffee farmers in Jamaica fear the arrival of the coffee berry borer, an insect that drills through the coffee berry outer layer and then just lives in the berry for the duration of their life cycle. There are no known safe pesticides and infected plants have to be written off forever. One migration season, flocks of black-throated blue warblers and American redstarts arrived, and diligently plucked the borers from the berries before they had chance to drill inside. The Jamaican forestry officials joined forces with conservationists, and now plantations are interspersed with indigenous trees like mahogany and almond, perfect habitat for these birds.
If birds start to vanish from an ecosystem, you can be pretty sure there is something bad happening somewhere.
A subject very close to our hearts, more so than coffee, is wine. In 2016, the Napa Valley and Sonoma county vineyard owners were devastated to realise that a vine-killing illness known as Pierce’s Disease was tearing through the regions, many places that had never experienced this before. Acres of vines had to be destroyed and the economic impact was huge. Pierce’s Disease is caused by bacteria that live on insect mandibles, one such being the blue-green sharpshooter. This just so happens to be the favourite food of the western bluebird, a bird that actually suffered terrible habitat loss during the development of California’s wine country. Nowadays the vineyards are dotted with thousands of nest boxes; western bluebirds have returned and live in harmony with winemakers.
Birds are quite high up in the food chain, which means they are excellent indicators of how well an ecosystem is functioning. If birds start to vanish from an ecosystem, you can be pretty sure there is something bad happening somewhere that will affect us. There has been a devastating decline in the world’s vulture populations for a number of years. Not the most adored of birds, vultures are nevertheless intrinsic to maintaining balance in nature. Thorough and efficient scavengers, vultures are able to dispose of animal carcasses in minutes and they play an important role in the control of livestock diseases such as anthrax, tuberculosis, plague and foot-and-mouth disease. An anti-inflammatory veterinary drug diclofenac was being used throughout South Asia since the mid-1990s but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that scientists discovered the link to the sudden decline in vulture populations. The drug causes renal failure in the birds in even the tiniest of amounts, and it is thought more than 95% of the world’s vultures died during that time after feeding on dead and abandoned livestock. Carcasses formerly eaten by vultures were subsequently left to rot in fields, and this led to drinking water contamination, already under great strain, and with unrivalled access to more food, rat and feral dog populations exploded, bringing the risk of bubonic plague and rabies ever closer. In India, 30,000 people die each year from rabies from dog bites, more than half the world’s total. India has an estimated 18 million feral dogs, the largest population of carnivores in the world. This abundance has led to an increase in leopards invading inhabited areas preying on feral dogs, and therefore injurious and fatal conflicts with humans. The social, economic, ecological, and public health implications of vulture extinction is too terrifying to contemplate.
Diclofenac was banned in Asia but unfortunately recently received approval to be used in Spain and other EU nations because the drug companies and farmers and regulators lobbied that cattle carcass disposal was carried out “differently”, therefore the vultures there would not get the chance to eat the contaminated meat. However a cinereous vulture on a hunting reserve in Spain has now been confirmed to have died of the same drug poisoning, and it is unlikely to be the only one. Newer research has also found that diclofenac is lethal to eagles, and there are currently only 300 pairs of the imperial Spanish eagle left.
To view the worth of an animal through a lens that only seeks out benefits in terms of human survival is a very selfish thing to do; but many in the birding and conservation world simply shrug and say “whatever it takes”. In order to attract the concern of lawmakers and the general public, research is needed to show that a world full of healthy bird populations is essential to human survival. Thankfully, most efforts made to conserve birds arise because those people care about them, and understand the metaphysical abyss that awaits by allowing and indeed hastening species to become extinct. You too can help all bird species, one way or another, either by joining or donating to a conservation group, encouraging children, family and peers to become interested in birds, even setting out feeders to help them survive another night. Be they on the brink of extinction or just ticking away happily in the background, no one species is ever out of danger. We need to wake up and smell the coffee, whilst there is still coffee to be had.