Importance to man
In addition to their importance in literature and legend, birds have been significant to human society in myriad ways. Birds and their eggs have been at least incidental sources of food for humans since their origin and still are in most societies. The eggs of some colonial seabirds, such as gulls, terns, and murres, or guillemots, and the young of some muttonbirds are even now harvested in large quantities. With the development of agrarian human cultures, several species of chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons were taken in early and have been selectively bred into many varieties. These domestic birds are descended, respectively, from the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), mallardduck (Anas platyrhynchos), greylaggoose (Anser anser), and rock dove (Columba livia). After the discovery of the New World, the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), which had already been domesticated by the Indians, and the Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) were brought to Europe and produced several varieties. Guinea fowl (Numida meleagris) from Africa were also widely exported and kept not only for food but also because they are noisy when alarmed, thus warning of the approach of intruders.
Besides being a food source, pigeons have long been bred and trained for carrying messages, their wartime use dating to the Roman era, according to Pliny the Elder. Messenger pigeons were widely used by German, British, and American forces in World Wars I and II and by the United States in the Korean War. In the South Seas, the ability of frigate birds to “home” to their nesting colonies enabled island inhabitants to send messages by these birds.
With the development of modern culture, hunting evolved from a foraging activity to a sport, in which the food value of the game became secondary. Large sums are now spent annually on hunting waterfowl, quail, grouse, pheasants, doves, and other game birds. Sets of rules and conventions have been set up for hunting, and in one elaborate form of hunting, falconry, there is not only a large body of specialized information on keeping and training falcons but also a complex terminology, much of it centuries old.
Feathers have been used for decoration for many thousands of years. Their use in the headpieces of indigenous peoples throughout the world is well known. Feather robes were made by Polynesians and Eskimos; and down quilts, mattresses, and pillows are part of traditional European folk culture. Large feathers have often been used in fans, thereby providing an example of an object put to opposite uses—for cooling as well as for conserving heat. Whereas most feathers used in decorating are now saved as by-products of poultry raising or hunting, until early in the 20th century, egrets, grebes, and other birds were widely shot for their plumes alone. Ostrich farms have been established to produce plumes as well as meat, and some ostriches have been raised specifically for racing. Large quills were once widely used for writing, and feathers have long been used on arrows and fishing lures.
Many birds are kept as pets. Small finches and parrots are especially popular and easy to keep. Of these, the canary (Serinus canaria) and the budgerigar of Australia (Melopsittacus undulatus, often called a parakeet) are widely kept and have been bred for a variety of colour types. On large parks and estates, ornamental species such as peacocks (Pavo cristatus), swans, and various exotic waterfowl and pheasants are often kept. Zoological parks in many cities import birds from many lands and are a source of recreation and enjoyment for millions of people each year.
With the rise of agriculture, man’s relationship with birds became more complex. Vast quantities of guano (bird excrement) were mined from island breeding colonies for use as fertilizer for crops. However, in regions where grain and fruit are grown, depredations by birds may be a serious problem. In North America various species of blackbirds (family Icteridae) are serious pests in grainfields; in Africa a grain-eating finch, the red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea), occurs like locusts, in plague proportions so numerous that alighting flocks may break the branches of trees. The use of city buildings for roosts by large flocks of starlings and blackbirds is also a problem, as is the nesting of albatrosses on airplane runways on Pacific islands. As a result of these problems, conferences on the control of avian pests are commonly held.
Although birds are subject to a great range of diseases and parasites, only a few of these are known to be capable of infecting man. Notable exceptions are ornithosis psittacosis, or parrot fever, a serious and sometimes fatal disease resembling viral pneumonia. The microorganism responsible for the disease is transmitted directly to man from pigeons, parrots, and a variety of other birds via their excrement. Encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, is also serious, but this infection is transmitted to man and to his domestic animals via biting arthropods, including mosquitoes. West Nile virus can likewise be transmitted. Wild birds may also act as reservoirs for diseases that adversely affect domesticated birds.
The study of birds has contributed much to both the theoretical and practical aspects of biology. Charles Darwin’s studies of the Galapagos finches and other birds during the voyage of HMS Beagle were important in his formulation of the idea of the origin of species through natural selection. Collections of birds in research museums still provide the bases for important studies of geographic variation, speciation, and zoogeography, because birds are one of the best known of animal groups. Early work on the domestic fowl added to the development of both genetics and embryology. The study of animal behaviour (ethology) has been based to a large extent on studies of birds by Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and their successors. Birds also have been the primary group in the study of migration and orientation and the effect of hormones on behaviour and physiology.
Man’s impact on bird populations is very strong. Since 1680 approximately 80 species of birds have become extinct, and a larger number are seriously endangered. While pollution and pesticides are important factors in the decline of certain large species, such as the peregrine falcon, osprey, and Californiacondor, the destruction of natural areas and introduction of exotic animals and diseases have probably been the most devastating. Concerted efforts of research and conservation are required to ensure the survival of rare species.Robert W. Storer
Editor's Note: When we asked a variety of avian enthusiasts why birds matter, we were thrilled with the responses, which ranged from poetic to practical, and personal to global. Hollywood director Wes Craven gave his two cents, as did field guide author David Sibley, activist Bill McKibben, authors Barbara Kingsolver and Terry Tempest Williams, and so many more—including Audubon staff and members from around the country. We want to hear from you, too, so join the conversation in the comments section.
Birds make any place a chance for discovery, they make a garden seem wild, they are a little bit of wilderness coming into a city park, and for a bird watcher every walk is filled with anticipation. What feathered jewel might drop out of the sky next? —David Sibley, Author
Birds are important because they keep systems in balance: they pollinate plants, disperse seeds, scavenge carcasses and recycle nutrients back into the earth. But they also feed our spirits, marking for us the passage of the seasons, moving us to create art and poetry, inspiring us to flight and reminding us that we are not only on, but of, this earth. —Melanie Driscoll, Director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Flyway
The sheer ubiquity of birds makes them almost unavoidable. Birds are the always-present possibility of an awakening to the natural world that too many people have not yet experienced. —Corey Finger, Blogger, 10,000 Birds
Conjuring a world without birds is a thing I don’t dare imagine, like the death of a child. Their fate is our own. —Joel Sartore, Photographer
Birds are wherever we are. They are our companions. Birds are mediators between heaven and earth. —Terry Tempest Williams, Author, When Women Were Birds
To abuse, to waste, to overuse—that’s immorality. For me, it’s very much a question of doing the right thing. And I wake up every morning and listen to the birds and take their song to heart and go back and sing for them. —Brian Rutledge, Vice President Rocky Mountain Region
Why do birds matter? It’s a funny question. Imagine asking a cardinal, “Why do humans matter?” He would sing if he could, from the top of a telephone pole, “They don’t! Not at all! Look at me!” Every species basically thinks we’re the real one, and all others are food or set decoration. If you could step back and register all our noise at once, you might get a glimpse of the real deal: life on earth. —Barbara Kingsolver, Author, Flight Behavior
Birds represent a link to both our natural environment and to the possibility of freedom to soar without boundaries. —Rue Mapp, Founder, Outdoor Afro
Birds remind us that there are angels. —Jane Alexander, Actress
Birds matter because they give us wings. And because if we save the birds, we will save the world. —Pepper Trail, USFWS forensic ornithologist
Great fiction is often praised for evoking a strong ‘sense of place.’ Birds do the same. In my own backyard, watching the types and rhythms of birds each day and each season heightens my appreciation for the subtler workings of the landscape. And when confronted by a seemingly alien place, say a desert or mountain tundra, the birds carry me from confusion to understanding. Seeing the world through the eyes of birds gives me a sense of place like no other. —Chris Canfield, Audubon’s Mississippi Flyway Lead
In an age when we experience so much of our world through glass—screens, windows, windshields—birds are a vital connection to the wild. They reach across any barrier, flitting, surprising, and dazzling, always there to refresh my sense of wonder. —Thor Hanson, Author, Feathers, The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
Birds matter not least because amazing migrations remind us what an interconnected web we live in, from pole to pole. —Bill McKibben, Author, environmental advocate
Without birds, nature would lose her voice and the planet its most engaging envoys. Birds matter precisely because they matter to us. Environment is a concept. Nature a label. Birds are real, elements that live within our sensory plane. They spread their wings and bridge the gap between our world and the natural world. —Pete Dunne, Author, director Cape May Bird Observatory
All birds, of course, are miracles, and humans have known this for millennia. We have looked to birds as oracles. Our hearts soar on their wings and their songs. Even the tiniest bird can teach us that life is larger than humankind alone. —Sy Montgomery, Author, Birdology
When we save birds from large-scale threats we see that what’s good for the birds is also good for us. This is true about agriculture, fishing, climate change. As we solve their problems we solve ours. This is about everyone’s quality of life. —Gary Langham, National Audubon Science Director
“Why do birds matter?” is one of those questions like “What is love?” or “Why are we here?” or even “Is there a God?” Unanswerable, I think, by logic. One could cite facts like, birds eat lots of harmful insects, charm us at our feeders, or challenge us to learn their field marks, molts, and names both common and scientific. But perhaps the answer lies deeper. Since the beginning birds have lifted our eyes to the skies. They’ve shown us we’re not gravity’s slave, that flight is possible and limitless. It can hover and soar, dive and display, and take us from one end of the planet to the other in a single, impossible burst of energy and purpose. Inspiration is the gift birds have given us from the start. But now they give us a question as well. Like the canary in the mine, they hold the planet up to us like a mirror and ask: “Can you not see that if we pass away, soon you will as well?” That’s a good question, and since birds pose it, they matter a lot. —Wes Craven, Hollywood director
Birds matter because I have a grandson. I want him to see his first rose-breasted grosbeak with me just like his Dad did. —Joe Francis, Former director, Wachiska Audubon Society
I’m reminded of the preacher’s story: When the poor man spent his meager funds on bread and flowers he was asked, “Why waste your pennies on flowers?” The man replied, “The bread is to live. The flowers are why we live.” We need birds and flowers to value something in ourselves beyond money. —Dan Greaney, Wintu Audubon Society
I think that birds are special creatures. To me they symbolize the ability to take off and go wherever they please without limit and land constraint. They can travel the world and go places where land walkers can’t. I think they are the most liberated species due to their ability to fly. —Samnam Phin, Property manager, The Trustees of Reservations
Birds are the catalyst for taking me outdoors and shaping the way I live and think. If we can all share this appreciation of the natural world and its positive impact on our lifestyles, the planet will be a different place. —Richard Crossley, Birder, photographer, author of The Crossley ID Guide
Birds are important because they are a window that mirrors our own humanness. By observing bird behaviors and learning the details of their lives, we learn about ourselves and what it means to be both fully human and fully alive. —GrrlScientist, Blogger, evolutionary biologist, and ornithologist
Birds are everywhere and provide one of the most exciting ways to connect with the natural world. There are so many questions that emerge once we start looking. Why is the goldfinch at my feeder? Where did it come from? Where is it going? And everyone in the world can help answer these questions by taking part in citizen-science efforts like Christmas Bird Count and eBird. Bringing together millions of records from around the world is providing us with new insights and understanding and raising even more questions. —Chris Wood, eBird director
Birds have always been are our biological barometers. From the ‘canary in the coal mine’ to weather predictions, documentation of climate change, monitoring habitat health, urban noise, and the introduction of spring. Birds are ‘man’s next best friend.’ —Carla Dove, Forensic ornithologist, Smithsonian Institute
Immeasurably and profoundly, birds have been a fundamental source of human aesthetics. It’s possible that they taught us to sing. Something within us continues to thrill when they do, and if they ever stopped, we’d find the silence maddening. They’re also visually stunning, from a tanager’s or a honeycreeper’s or a sunbird’s brilliance, to a hummingbird’s iridescence, to a lyre-tailed nightjar’s or a quetzal’s or a Indian peacock’s impossible tail feathers, to an Andean cock-of-the-rock’s crest, to the liquid undulations of thousands of black kites flocking above Karachi, to every albatross’s and eagle’s majesty, or to the angelic glide of the red-crowned cranes that inspired art, myth, and metaphysics. —Alan Weisman, Author
Birds have always enriched human life, from the ancients who looked to the flight of flocks to foretell the future, to entrepreneurs manufacturing recyclable computer motherboards from waste feathers. It was Rachel Carson’s bleak warning of a spring devoid of bird-song that launched the modern environmental movement. As biomimics study the agile, collision free wheeling of starlings to develop algorithms, I delight in the thievery of the sushi hawks who nest near my home, plucking $4 fish stocked in private lakes. Long may they fly. —Hunter Lovins. Author, promoter of sustainable development
No other creature can transcend earth, evoke beauty, inspire dreams, and ground us in nature as does even the smallest bird. —Julie Sacco, Director, North Park Village Nature Center
Birds bring color, pattern, and sound to our landscape. Experience geese rising over Horicon Marsh at dawn, sandhill cranes landing at Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge at sunset, the flute-like song of a wood thrush in a spring forest, or a brilliant yellow American goldfinch on a purple cone flower in a backyard. What joy birds bring to our world! —Diane Lembck, Wisconsin Metro Audubon Society
Birds matter to me because they were my first lesson in caring for something other than myself. I am the youngest. My older brother and sisters watched out for me and I helped Mom watch out for the birds by making sure they were fed and experimented in ways to keep the neighbor’s cat away from the Eastern bluebird boxes. Today, I find myself continuing my Mom’s legacy by giving my niece and nephews “an eye to the sky” and I take pride in working for Audubon to make sure they have the birds around that I enjoyed as a child. —Frank Moses, Montezuma Audubon Center Director
Why do birds matter? They matter in a similar way as any bolt and nut matters to the success of an airplane flight. We don’t know which combination of species is critical for timeless success of the human race. —Venita Bright, Information and Education Division, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Why Birds Matter
Nature’s gift to grace the sky.
Flights of fancy, spirits high.
With cheerful song they greet the day
And gently ease our cares away.
—Andy Mauro, Buena Vista Audubon Society
Birds connect me to the rhythm of the natural world. Flocks of cedar waxwings announce winter in a way no calendar can. The meteorologist declares autumn’s arrival, but I wait for goldfinch and junco to confirm it. Purple martin scouts arrive, chirping from the telephone wire, their oily feathers shine in the sun—spring is here, again. —Ben Jones, Director, Trinity River Audubon Center
Birds are part of this whole ecosystem we call Nature. They are wonderful to watch, they spread seeds, they are food for other species, they eat bugs, mosquitoes, etc., and this world would not be the same with out them. All creatures, plants, animals, birds, humans, bugs, reptiles, and fish were put on this earth to interact with. —Debby McKee, Topeka Audubon Society
Birds add beauty to our lives, interesting behavior to observe, and are prime indicators of how well we are taking care of our planet. —Donna McCarty, Birdathon chair, Amos W. Butler Audubon Society
Birds are amazing creatures. They are beautiful in sight and in behavior. Some accomplish incredible flights across thousands of miles. Some have adapted to their environments in intriguing ways. We have much science to learn from all of them. We live on a planet that, in part, depends on the ecological services provided by birds. We depend on birds. So perhaps the question should be, “Why do people matter?” What a sad, sterile place the world would be without birds. —Philip Witmer, Board treasurer, Bucks County Audubon Society
Birds matter because they are our most immediate reminders of the natural world. There is something about even the red breast of an American robin that says, “Hey look at me. I’m part of the world too.” —Jim Briggs, Kittitas Audubon
Because they are indicator species. —Heath Wakelee, Sierra Foothills Audubon Society
Birds are our link to emotions; the great egret flying toward me, landing on the railing outside the window as I mourned my father’s death, the children I take outside and the joyful shout “I see the bird” as they hold binoculars for the first time, the gritted teeth at mockingbird’s midnight song, the tear slipping down the cheek for a pile of feathers, the awe of migratory journeys. The list is long, complicated biologically, and metaphorically linked to our being. —Diana Granados, Founder Native Bird Connections, Board Member Mount Diablo Audubon Society
Birds matter because they represent freedom to me, the freedom to come and go. They are frequently not tied down to one place, but spend time in vastly different places on earth, often migrating huge distances. —Evi Meyer, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon
Birds matter because they are a basic, integral part of the earth’s ecosystem. As in any system, the loss of one part will ultimately cause the downfall of the whole. —Jean Ashby, Education cochair, Skagit Audubon
Birds matter because they are beautiful to watch and to hear and because they make my heart soar with joy and gratitude of the abundance and diversity of God’s universe. —Dianne Lawson, Topeka Audubon Society
As a child I was mesmerized by birds. Not only can they fly, but their vocals are heavenly. My love and appreciation of birds was a big part of me becoming a biologist. From hummingbirds to raptors, they are all magnificent. —Mark Brohman, Lincoln Nebraska
As one has said some time ago, all birds are the “canary in the coal mine” for our environment. We need to pay attention to the birds around us to recognize environmental changes and problems. —Laurence L. Falk, Nebraska
From a selfishly human standpoint, birds eat many insects that are disliked by us, but from a universal standpoint, they represent the vast and beautiful creativity of the mind of God. —Jan Lambert, Charlestown, New Hampshire
A world without flight is a world without imagination. Just ask Icarus, DaVinci, the Wright brothers, or any kid with his arms out in a sudden gust of wind. —Benjamin Vogt, Lincoln, Nebraska
Birds remind me that there is an incredible natural spectacle unfolding daily just outside my window. Their singing, soaring presence invites me to appreciate our interconnectedness with the rest of the living things we humans share the planet with. —Emily Simon, Allen Park, Michigan
Life in a world with birds is, for us, a world shared. Birds sing, they soar, and fill our world with wonder. —Jill DeWitt
When life becomes heavy and worries pull me down like gravity, I simply look up and suddenly there, in the weightless free air, soaring like kites, flitting from branch to branch, unencumbered, my friends the birds release my soul and I am again free. —Carl Schreiner, Eagle, Nebraska
Why do birds matter? Their beauty, behavior, knowledge, songs, personality, strength, fragility, ability to migrate thousands of miles twice a year—their connection to everything on the earth. The joy they bring into our lives! —Karen Bearden, Raleigh, North Carolina
They provide structure to our native plant communities by spreading seeds and consuming vast quantities of insects. Without them we humans probably would cease to exist. —Mike North, Brainerd Lakes Area Audubon Society
All of our scheduled school groups leave Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary and Audubon Center understanding that birds assist in controlling insects and planting seeds and that they also add color, sound, and movement to our lives. Years ago a disoriented indigo bunting landed on an elementary student’s shoulder during a school field trip. I allowed the other students to gently touch the bird’s beautiful plumage before it flew away. These children will remember this experience forever. Whether we think about it or not birds are an important part of our lives. —Tim Williams, Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary and Audubon Center Manager
They are part of a healthy food chain on our planet. They eat everything from insects to fish and larger prey as well as help pollinate the flowers of many plants. Besides the biological reasons, they brighten the lives of people who observe, feed, photograph, and study them. —Rosemary Thornton
Birds matter because they help people connect with nature, which often leads to caring enough about the environment to do something to protect it. —Phyllis Kegley, Program and publicity chair, Northern Arizona Audubon Society
Beside the fact that birds are beautiful, fun to watch, quite intelligent (the list goes on), they indicate to us humans what is happening here on earth. It saddens me that some of us honestly think there is no harm in losing a few species to extinction here or there. Everything on this big blue-green ball we live on is linked in some way and thinking we can just write off a few birds should not be an option. —Kevin Smith, Board member, East Cascades Audubon Society
Birds inspire us to reach for greater heights in life. No wonder the Bible urges us to “mount up with wings like eagles” in order to renew our strength. (Isaiah 40:31) —Neil Weatherhogg, Topeka Audubon Society and Audubon of Kansas
Birds have been known to serve shamans as a helping spirit and conduit between the seen and unseen worlds. —Kathy Malm, Board of directors, Prescott Audubon Society
They play a key part in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, both as predators and prey. —Chuck Seniawski, Treasurer, Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society
Birds matter because they are the most omnipresent, most recognizable representatives of the other species that share the fate of the planet with us. They represent the outdoors and the freedom of unrestrained movement we all enjoy, whether we are the city-dweller watching robins and sparrows in the backyard, the commuter watching flocks of blackbirds and waterfowl as we speed along rural roads, or the avid naturalist catching glimpses of pelicans as we hike along some coastal trail. Birds matter. —Mike Rushton
Birds are the Fed Exes of the natural world. They bring nature to people, wherever we are, sitting on a front porch, hiking a backcountry trail, in a wheelchair sitting by a window. Birds are with us nearly always and as such, so is nature. —Jacqui Bonomo, Executive director and vice president, Audubon Maryland-DC
Birds matter because they symbolize the very essence of freedom. They can fly free from backyard to backyard ignoring the fences between neighbors and from country to country ignoring our cultural differences. Free to pursue life, liberty, and bird happiness! —Eunice M. Cenrohlavek, Lincoln, Nebraska
Seeing swirling masses of blackbirds wheel across the sky is my favorite nature experience. You imagine the feel and rush of air whooshing by—a roller coaster times 10. I dream of seeing this for real: tinyurl.com/incrediblebirds.Wow. —Marian Langan
I gave a program this summer at a chapter annual meeting with this exact title. In my program I listed lots of ways that birds matter including scientific, economic, cultural (myth, art, inspiration etc.). But I ended with the personal, which I think is what ultimately motivates people to action. My first child died from cancer after a four-year battle from six-months old to almost five-years old. My wife and my subsequent life has included three more wonderful children and much change and growth. I am reminded always of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and how to me, birds represent hope. These delicate creatures making arduous migratory trips, year after year, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but never stopping. There were days when I did not want to get out of bed from the grief but we continue and keep going, just like they do. So when I work in North Carolina, Nicaragua, and across the flyway on wood thrush or golden-winged warblers, I keep that hope close. —Curtis Smalling, Director of land bird conservation, Audubon North Carolina
Birds hold wisdom. The indigenous people know that to be true. They are messengers. To allow or cause a species to become extinct is to lose that knowledge. Forever. —Cindy Fogle, Maggie Valley, North Carolina
They bring hope, beauty, music and wonder to this planet. —Ramona Sahni
Birds matter because we can matter to them. By protecting or restoring habitat, keeping ours cats indoors, curbing pesticide use, and using BirdTape on our windows, we can help keep common birds common and bend the curve on population loss for threatened and endangered species. —Carl Schwartz, Coordinator, Bird City Wisconsin
Birds matter because they are an early indication of the state of the environment. They travel from place to place and by monitoring their movements, we can see changes in habitat, perhaps before we would notice the changes by ourselves. But mostly they matter because they are unique, beautiful, and intelligent. —Paula Wehr, President, Halifax River Audubon
Birds are an important part of the species chain supporting earth’s ecosystems. From the smallest wren to the largest eagle or waterfowl, birds help sustain the earth’s resources while sustaining themselves. They and every other species now face challenges greater than we have known in many recent and past eras in the face of toxicity, pollution, greenhouse gases, and many other forces attacking all of the earth’s species and environments. They are harbingers foretelling humans that the results of our actions are having and will continue to produce serious impacts on everything we now know on earth, if we do not change our ways. —Joyce Coppinger
“Birds are nature’s greatest expression of grace and beauty and are an inspiration to all who observe and study them.” I often use this to describe the wonder I feel when observing birds and their behaviors. People seem to get my point. —Tom Baptist, Executive director, Audubon Connecticut
Birds matter because they are beautiful and because we love them and care about them. They matter because they are an integral part of the ecosystem in which they live, and we are already learning that when one element of an ecosystem is disturbed, there is a ripple of consequences that affects the entire system: for example, they are a food source for raptors, some mammals, and other species. Birds matter because they are an important source of eco-tourism in many parts of the world. —Melanie Hunt