Birds are fun to look at. Some have beautiful feathers (plumage). Some sing wonderful songs. Some, like eagles and other raptors, can inspire us with their dignity and hunting skill. But did you know that aside from these characteristics I’ve mentioned, birds benefit humans and the natural environment in many ways?
Let’s take a look at the benefits of birds. But first, let’s place birds in their context.
According to Merck Manuals (pet health edition),” there are between 8,700 and 9,600 living species of birds today. These range in size from tiny (such as hummingbirds) to huge (such as ostriches and condors)” (quoted in Audubon, April 8, 2013, online edition).
Birds live all over the world in all climates. They are part of many different biological communities.
A biological community consists of all the organisms – microbes, plants, and animals – that live in an area. A community, together with the physical environment to which it is tied by a series of processes (such as the production of oxygen by plants and its use by animals, and the reciprocal production of carbon dioxide by animals and its use by plants), is called an ecosystem.
In their biological communities, birds perform a variety of functions, that benefit other beings in the communities, including humans. I’ll bet that birds are doing these things in your yard or neighborhood.
Some birds help to fertilize flowers.
These types of birds are called “pollinators”, meaning that they help to fertilize flowers, especially by cross-fertilization. “Pollinators are attracted to the flowers by colors, scents,and nectars” (Answers, Yahoo.com, anonymous). The structure of the flower makes sure that the bird or other pollinator gets a dusting of pollen to take to the next flower it visits. The flower may be ornamental – valued for its appearance – or agricultural – valued for its food production, like tomato and squash flowers. Without birds and other pollinators (bees, wasps, flies, bats, etc.), certain plants would not be able to reproduce themselves or provide us with foods such as apples, peaches, and strawberries. Ecologically speaking, the pollinator gets food (the nectar), and the plant gets a passenger service for its pollen.
Hummingbirds, spiderhunters, sunbirds, orioles, honeycreepers and honeyeaters are some of the common pollinator bird species. “Plants that make use of pollination by birds commonly have bright red, orange or yellow flowers and very little scent. This is because birds have a keen sense of sight for color, but generally little or no sense of smell. Bird pollinated flowers produce copious amounts of nectar to attract and feed the birds that are performing the pollination, as well as having pollen that is usually large and sticky to cling to the feathers of the bird.” (www.birds.com)
In my yard, the hummingbirds seem to especially like the lilac bushes and hydrangeas, as well as the native plants.
Some birds provide pest control.
Many birds eat insects, providing humans with pest control. The insects eaten by birds include aphids, mosquitoes, Japanese beetles, European corn borers, and other bugs. Other organisms that birds eat include worms, spiders, and snails.
In Minnesota, we definitely need the birds and bats who eat mosquitoes. Sometimes in the humid days of summer, I almost can’t go outside because of the concentrated attacks of these bugs.
If you attract bug-eating birds like bluebirds and chickadees to your garden, then you don’t need to use insecticides. The birds will eat up the pests you don’t want: grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, and caterpillars.
Throughout history, birds have helped humans by saving crops from pest damage or destruction. According to one website, birds have saved potato fields, fruit orchards, cranberry bogs, wine grapes, and wheat crops. Birds also eat forest pests, which helps save trees needed for lumber or to hold the soil on steep hillsides.
Some birds help to control weeds.
Bird species such as finches, towhees, crows, blackbirds, and sparrows eat weed seeds. This makes them partners with humans in controlling unwanted plants.
Seed-eating birds will consume seeds of nettle, grass, crabgrass, pigweed, and ragweed. All winter I watch them at the birdfeeders, chowing down on weed seeds that are part of the seed mix I buy to feed them.
Bird-friendly landscaping promotes environmental conservation.
Landscaping your yard and garden to attract birds has benefits that go beyond just getting the birds to come. In addition, bird-friendly landscaping uses native plants, which use less water and are more resistant to diseases than exotics you bring in. Native plants require less work from you to maintain them. Your local university extension service and magazines such as Organic Gardening offer sources for lists of native plants that will grow well in your climate zone.
Native plants will also help to attract bees to your garden. Helping bee colonies survive is a critical need right now.
Bird-friendly landscaping provides oases for bird and wildlife conservation.
Continued housing development and agricultural expansion in the U.S. and other countries has threatened or destroyed natural habitats where birds live. If you provide bird-friendly native plants – especially trees, shrubs, and grasses – your property becomes an oasis for local birds and other wildlife that have no place to go. In addition, migrating birds can make your yard a stopping place for water, food, and rest.
Bird-watching provides stress relief for humans.
Activities like watching birds, listening to their songs, filling birdfeeders, and working outdoors to improve bird habitat can relieve stress and promote well-being for humans. You feel calm as you observe the natural world and understand your part in it.
This is the main reason people go to national parks, wildlife refuges, state parks, and wilderness areas: to relieve stress and grow in appreciation for the natural world. Seeing birds is often a highlight of my trips to parks and nature centers.
Other benefits of working outside in your yard or volunteering in a community garden will assure that you have a good supply of vitamin D that comes only from sunlight, and detoxify your body through breathing fresh air in a garden setting.
Scavenging birds reduce disease outbreaks and recycle nutrients.
The scavenging birds include vultures, crows, eagles, ravens, ospreys, kites, magpies, falcons, condors, owls, and gulls. The scavenging birds quickly and effectively dispose of carcasses of dead animals they find, especially roadkill.
Getting rid of carcasses reduces the chances for diseases to spread. The activities of scavenging animals are seen today in suburban and rural settings. They dispose of the bodies of animals such as deer, skunks, opossums, and raccoons that are killed by cars as the animals try to cross the road.
Unfortunately, roadkilled animals are a sad feature of spring and fall in Minnesota and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of raccoons, skunks, and deer meet their end at night when they clash with cars and trucks. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 1 million deer are killed by cars each year. Minnesota is in the top 10 states for deer-vehicle accidents. The scavenging birds have a lot of work to do to keep up with the volume or roadkill.
The scavenging birds are not choosy about what they eat. They will consume meat from any dead animal, as well as garbage dumped by people along roads or in fields.
Fruit-eating birds help spread fruit seeds.
The fruit-eating birds consume seeds as they eat apples, raspberries, cherries, elderberries, blueberries, and strawberries. All fruits that are suitable for human consumption are also nutritious for birds. Birds will also eat other types of fruit that are not typical human foods, as well as damaged or overripe fruit that would not be good for humans. Robins, bluebirds, chickadees, scarlet tanagers, blue jays, waxwings, and mockingbirds are some of the species of birds that love to eat fruit.
After they eat the fruit and its seeds, birds deposit the undigestible seeds in their feces dropped all over their territory. The seeds are buried in leaf litter and watered by rain. Some time later, they germinate, producing new raspberry bushes, apple trees, and other fruit-bearing plants, and the cycle starts again.
Birds stimulate tourism.
Birds boost tourism by attracting bird-loving tourists to their migration and nesting areas. The tourists come to an area where favorite birds are known to live, stop over during migration, or breed. These tourists spend money as they travel, adding income to hotels and restaurants, which in turn support accountants, farmers, truckers, servers, maids, and other employees and businesses. Bird watchers also spend money on binoculars, camping gear, nest boxes, birdseed, bird feeders, books, and other items.
Thousands of people flock to central Nebraska to see the migration of sand hill cranes in March. They go to Winona, Minnesota, to watch hundreds of eagles catch fish in the winter months, and to northern Minnesota and Vermont in the summer to see the loons.
Wetlands near Corsicana, Texas, attract thousands of ducks, egrets, eagles, and other birds, along with tourists.
The many benefits of birds
Now that you’ve seen how birds help humans, I want to encourage you to pay more attention to birds near you and do things to help them. Set up feeders and provide fresh water in your yard or on your apartment balcony. Contribute to organizations that protect birds and promote bird conservation. Visit a nature center, park, or other place where bird watching is encouraged. Help a child to appreciate birds.
What birds are in your yard?
Are you seeing birds from your window, but are not sure what species they are? Check out this bird identification guide.