Dot Schwarz discusses the true value of birds.
If you are reading my blog, I’d guess that the survival of bird species (especially Parrots) is important to you and you believe that’s it is right to support bird conservation. It is estimated that 1.200 bird species are facing extinction over the next century, many more are greatly reduced in numbers and if this continues will vanish from our skies.
Thirty years ago when we came to live in Essex after 10 years in France, I used to grumble every spring at the insistent cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. Not anymore. Spring 2016, I heard the cuckoo call three times.
Bird people want conservation taken seriously. But policy makers and the general public need convincing that saving birds is not just for their beauty; they perform so many useful functions, many of which are not generally known.
We must offer credible research showing that healthy bird populations are essential to human welfare. If we all become more aware of the usefulness of birds not only for their beauty, will we redouble our efforts at protecting them and their habitats?
Birds do much more for us than we often acknowledge. I think that we should. Here are some of the ways that birds help our environment.
Not only bird keepers travel to see gorgeous feathers; eco-tourism is a growing industry. The global impact of birding is wholly positive; it grants status to birding in developing countries, where other tourism jobs tend to be menial and low paying.
Indigenous people with a grasp of natural history can make decent money as bird watching guides, even with only rudimentary English skills.
Alan Jones, describing his birding journey in South America, had high praise for his guides, often men who formerly trapped birds for the pet trade. There are bird watching lodges in most parts of the world. I’ve never met anyone who has not enjoyed a holiday watching wild birds. If you can only be an armchair birdwatcher, Rosemary Low’s books give wonderful impressions about what birds are like in the wild.
The other important spin off for conservation is that many projects accept visitors and these tourists will bring money into the village communities. This can help lessen the scourge of poaching, a chief cause of wild bird populations decline.
In the 1990s a New York Zoological Society biologist computed that in the jungles of Peru ‘a single free-flying Large Macaw might generate $22,500 (£14,881) to $165,000 (£109.131) of tourist receipts in its lifetime.
Eco tourism and research have become constructive partners in some projects. Donald Brightsmith heads the Tampotata Macaw Project at the Tambopata Research Centre in Peru, where thousands of visitors have marvelled at the wild Macaws.
Financing research projects in the present climate is difficult. Brightsmith told me that no researcher ever says they are getting enough as projects can always do more and expand. But he was receiving great support from the ecotourism company Rainforest
Expeditions who provided lots of support in food, lodging, transportation and logistics.
He said ‘Bird owners have always been a great outlet for my work and a source of moral support. Groups like Phoenix Landing, PEAC and Raleigh Durham Caged Bird Society have also provided valuable support. However, the overall financial contribution of the bird owner community has always been less than hoped.’
Conservation efforts are carried out by many avian institutions. Loro Parque in the Canary Islands, one of the finest places in the world to see captive Parrots, in spacious aviaries, supports the Tampotata project amongst many others.
Other institutions like the World Parrot Trust also play important roles. At the Trust’s headquarters in Paradise Park in Cornwall, choughs have been captive bred and in 2016 were taken to Jersey to join the small flock.
Choughs had disappeared from Jersey for over a hundred years. You can read the fascinating details of this programme in the monthly newsletters from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
At Paradise Park, a Parrot owner cannot fail to be entranced by the free flight demonstrations, the walk-through aviaries where you can feed Lorikeets or the workshops on husbandry and behaviour that the curators give for moderate fees.
The efforts to protect or increase threatened populations do have some positive outcomes. One that always warms my heart is The Hyacinth Macaw Project, that began in 1990 by the biologist Neiva Guedes.
The project monitored about 3,000 individuals distributed over an area of 400,000 hectares in the Pantanal region of Mato Grosso do Sul. Since the project started numbers have almost doubled. In the 1980s 10,000 Hyacinth Macaws were trapped and exported. This has almost ceased but Mexico, Asia and the Middle East are still importing many wild caught birds.
It’s hard to think of how we in UK can help stop this traffic. Sad but true, if conservation efforts are regarded from a purely profit angle, you will get higher cash returns from constructing a golf course or building a shopping mall than preserving a wetland for migrant birds.
Birds as Cleaners
Birds also perform other rather more obscure services and are excellent sanitation workers. Have you ever considered how messy road kills would become were it not for the corvids cleaning them up?
And on a grander scale – the vultures in India and neighbouring countries perform the same service. Hindus for religious reasons cannot bury or burn cattle so the vultures must pick them clean. There is a crisis here because vulture populations have declined by over 90% due to ingestion of dead cattle that were treated with the medicine dioflanc – beneficial for them fatal- for vultures’ kidneys.
And for Parsis and certain Buddhists, sky burials (leaving a corpse in the open) were and still are the normal procedure. A fast hygienic way of disposing of corpses in places where wood is impossible to come by for cremation or soil too rocky to dig graves.
Although valiant efforts are being made to restore the vulture population, the dangerous drugs for treating cattle have not entirely disappeared from the market. This decline in numbers of vultures has serious knock-on effects.
Packs of feral dogs have increased; they live by scavenging the dead animals that formerly vultures would have dealt with. This has led to an increase in dog bites and rabies. (India has the world’s highest human rabies rate.)
Birds as Propagators
Apart from rare forbidden treats (crisps, cookies etc.) my four pet Parrots will, apparently on purpose, scatter whatever they are eating around them. If you keep pet Parrots you are always irritated by their seed flinging all over the carpet.
Our pet birds are only doing the same as their wild cousins. In the rain forest birds disperse seeds and are invaluable for this service. Throughout the world, birds are essential seed dispersers for plants that provide us with food, medicine, timber, and recreation.
The skills they use for this are long distance flight, removing the pulp of fruit and dropping the seed. They assist germination when they eat fruit by removing the pulp and scratching the seed coat. Pollination is carried out by bees, bugs, and butterflies.
Also, more than 900 bird species pollinate fruits and flowers.
Birds as Pest Controllers
Birds as well as harming crops will also protect them. Barry Yeoman in the March 2011 issue of Audubon magazine, gave some telling examples.
Here is one: a coffee borer beetle infestation can ruin a Jamaican coffee farmer. Who can save the crop are neotropical migrants like the black-throated blue warbler and the American Redstart. These and other birds gobble up the borers while the insects are first drilling through the berries’ outer shell.
And another: the manager of a Napa Valley vineyard found that by erecting 1,000 nest boxes for the Western Bluebird, the scourge of pierce’s disease was eliminated from the vines.
The evidence is not clear whether bird flu originates in wild ducks or factory- farmed poultry. But if you have a pond and ducks swimming, your mosquito load will be greatly reduced.
Much pleasanter for a UK resident not to have an itchy bite but of inestimable value to an Indonesian rice farmer when the ducks clear up the mosquito larvae – thus reducing the risk of malaria.
When the mormons settled in Utah in the 19th century, their first two crop seasons were destroyed by western crickets. “Promising fields of wheat were cut down to the ground in a single day,” naturalist Edward Howe Forbush wrote in 1922. “The people were in despair. Then sea gulls came by the hundreds and thousands and, before the grain could be entirely destroyed. They then devoured the insects, so that the fields were freed from them. The settlers regarded this as a heaven-sent miracle.”
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring made a tremendous impact in 1962. She chronicled the lethal effects of DDT which poisoned entire populations of birds. In almost 60 years since then, scientists routinely use birds to gauge the health of ecosystems—and not just for purely biological reasons.
Birds often meet the technical criteria, such as sensitivity to environmental changes.
Pigeons as Heroes and Heroines
Although our local pigeons are shot by the farmers for grain stealing, pigeons are not simply pests. Aren’t they also cousins of those heroic carrier pigeons who performed so many valuable services in both world wars?
Carrier pigeons successfully navigated through shellfire (and past bullets aimed at them). They transported messages that helped the Allies capture German submarines and that saved the crews of downed seaplanes and a sunken minesweeper.
It seems clear to both bird owners and biologists that we need to preserve birds for a healthy ecology. There is another issue: We not treasure birds not only for their economic value but also for their intrinsic worth.
They are – as we now know – sentient creatures. They enrich our eyes with their beauty, our ears with their song. Their habits are both familiar (a monogamous pair of swans) or utterly strange (the nesting behaviour of cuckoos). And if we are fortunate enough to share our lives with some of them, we are allowed a glimpse into another world.