One of the first requirements for the Boy Scout Bird Study merit badge is to understand why birds and bird study is important? Sure they are nice to have around, but besides being pretty curiosities, what do birds have to do with anything?
Well, it turns out that bird populations, and especially diversity in bird populations, is a terrific, highly visible indicator of the health of the surrounding environment. Frequently, the birds can be an early warning sign that something is wrong with the environment.
Have you ever heard of the unfortunate practice of keeping caged canaries in coal mines? It turns out that canaries are much more susceptible to poisonous gasses like methane or carbon monoxide, so if the miners saw the birds in distress or dying, they would be able to leave the mine in time to save themselves. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that this cruel, but useful, practice was stopped in mining.
Are you seeing too many of an insect pest? Look up the food chain and see if the birds that control those insects are diminished or missing? Are you accustomed to seeing feral or wild cats but now they are gone? look down the food chain at the birds.
In our yard and neighborhood, we are blessed with a huge variety of birds – especially in the spring. We will see mockingbirds, robins, bluebirds, jays, cardinals, brown thrashers, a couple of different kinds of woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, Mississippi kites, and even the occasional bald eagle! There are the nearly constant sounds of mourning doves during the day and owls at night.
One of our neighbors for some years had a couple of very large dead lightning-struck pine trees in their yard. Then a while back they had those trees cut down from around their house and suddenly the woodpeckers and owls were gone! We certainly don’t blame our neighbors – you can’t have giant trees hanging over your house ready to fall on something. But it is an example of how bird diversity is linked to the environment.
Saving endangered birds around the world
This article just came across my desk – Global Conservation successes of 2017 by Emily Heber of Island Conservation. The author discusses several conservation successes related to diversity and at-risk species – and all four of her examples are birds!
- Hawaiian Crows
- Brown and Okarito Kiwi
- South Island Takahe
- Australian Night Parrots
This reminds me of our local favorite critically-endangered/assumed extinct bird species – the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). These lovely birds used to be endemic to the southeast U.S. but mostly because of habitat destruction, they are gone.
Ivory Billed woodpeckers still exist wild in Cuba. I wonder what it would take to reintroduce them now that we have smarter forestry practices in place. I bet that several mated pairs of Ivory Bills could help a lot with the Pine Beetle infestation that is eating the Homochitto National Forest these days.