10 Reasons to Be Thankful for Birds

Photograph by Dave McMullen/ Flickr Creative Commons

10 Reasons to Be Thankful for Birds

Whether you’re eating turkey or tofurky this Thanksgiving, raise a glass to the many ways in which wild birds enrich our lives—and in fact support our very existence.


By The Editors
Published: 11/18/2013

1. They provide pest control.

Modern history is filled with stories of birds saving potato fields, fruit orchards, and cranberry bogs from insect devastation. Now researchers are studying the phenomenon more formally, trying to quantify birds' value as living pest controllers.

Consider the case of the coffee berry borer. These tiny insects invade individual coffee berries and spend almost their entire lives inside, making those beans unsellable. There are no safe pesticides that kill the insects, and attempts to control them with parasitic wasps have shown, at best, limited success.

But black-throated blue warblers, American redstarts, and other birds feast on the borers when the insects are first drilling into the berries. A researcher at one site in Jamaica's Blue Mountains calculated the birds' pest-control value at $125 per acre, or nearly one-eighth of the total crop value of $1,044 per acre.

In the Netherlands insect-eating birds protect apple orchards, and in Missouri's Ozark Mountains they safeguard white oaks, whose lumber is highly sought by furniture makers. Birds even reduce pests at organic wineries.

2. They're money makers.

Birds stimulate economies just by being the beautiful, fascinating creatures they are. In an economic analysis released in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that, based on a 2006 survey, birders spend $12 billion annually on travel and an additional $24 billion on equipment including binoculars, camping gear, and nest boxes. That money ripples out, generating $82 billion in economic output, employing 671,000 people, and enriching state and federal governments by $10 billion.

You need only visit Ohio's Maggee Marsh to see that ripple effect in action. This 2,000-acre wildlife refuge on Lake Erie is a stopover for neotropical migrants, which rest and refuel before crossing the lake. With such avian abundance, the marsh attracts more than 100,000 birders a year. One researcher calculated that in 2011 Magee Marsh and five other Lake Erie birdwatching areas in Ohio collectively generated $26 million in spending and created 283 jobs.

3. They clean up.

Perhaps the least sexy service birds provide is eating dead bodies. They clean up enormous amounts of roadkill all over the world. Unfortunately, vulture populations everywhere have suffered major declines. In many cases, the cause can be traced to indirect poisonings that are the result of drugs given to the animals the vultures feed on. When vulture numbers plunged in India, feral dogs took over carcass disposal. This led to a growing canine population, which meant more fatal dog attacks, as well as an increase in rabies and bites.

Economist Anil Markandya estimates that there have been almost 40 million additional dog bites in India between 2002 and 2006, resulting in about 48,000 extra deaths. He calculates that the vulture-dog connection alone produced human health costs totaling $34 billion over 14 years.

4. They spread seeds.

In the high mountains of the American West, the future of a tree called the whitebark pine hangs in the beak of a particular bird. The tree's seeds are dispersed only by the Clark's nutcracker, a black-and-white-winged cousin to the crow. The nutcracker's long, sturdy bill opens the pinecones to pluck out the seeds, which it eats or stores inside its throat. It then buries the uneaten seeds at the depth and location that the trees often need to reproduce. Without the nutcracker, it's unlikely that the whitebark pine could sustain itself.

Researchers with the U.S. Forest Service have done some experiments that help quantify the value of the nutcracker's dispersal service. They figure its worth at between $800 and $1,000 per acre, based on what it would cost to plant the pines by hand. Multiply that by about 14.3 million acres of whitebark pine forest, and you get savings of more than $11 billion in the United States alone.

5. They announce danger.

Most of us are familiar with Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's 1962 book, which chronicled the lethal effects of the DDT. Carson's robins--along with bald eagles exposed to the pesticides--signaled to many Americans that birds could serve as "winged sentinels" of environmental degradation. More than 50 years later scientists routinely use birds to gauge the health of ecosystems--and not just for purely biological reasons.

Tree swallows are providing insight on the impact of a wide range of PCBs in the Great Lakes and Hudson River, pulp-mill effluent in western Canada, petroleum in Wyoming's North Platte River, and metals in New Jersey. Likewise, scientists have been monitoring the health of common loons in New York's Adirondack Park to understand the impact of atmospheric mercury from coal-burning power plants and incinerators. By measuring the loons' breeding success and correlating it to mercury contamination, scientists have been able to provide evidence for the need to stringently regulate mercury and acidic emissions on national and global scales.

6. They pollinate.

Pollination is the recognized realm of bees, bugs, and butterflies. But more than 900 bird species worldwide pollinate, too, and their sophisticated sense of geography suits them well to the task. The durian munjit, a wild fruit that is collected and eaten in northern Borneo, relies exclusively on spiderhunters, members of the sunbird family.


My husband and I placed a

My husband and I placed a bluebird house in our side hard two years ago hoping we could lure a mating pair to our yard. We had sited a bluebird or two in recent years and were enchanted by their beauty, Much to our pleasure the house did provide shelter for nest building to a lovely pair last summer and this summer. We put mealy bugs out for them and took our binoculars out for spying on them from a window with a perfect view of the house and surrounding trees and bushes. What delightful secretive birds they proved to be. They are very careful to be aware of their surroundings before entering the bird house with food for their nestlings. We felt privlleged by their presence, so were delighted to see them arrive again this year! We have seed feeders everywhere and lots of natural habitat with water baths to provide for a variety of different birds. It all makes for lots of fun for us while taking care of a few birds and their needs.

I love birds and I'm pleased

I love birds and I'm pleased to read all the reasons we should be thankful to them. When I started feeding them 11 years ago there were 6 sparrows left in the neighbourhood. There are now 24 species (including mgratory birds which like to make a stop in the garden).

thank you for all the beaut

thank you for all the beaut info on birds esp those crows....

Fantastic article! Here's

Fantastic article! Here's reason # 11....their sheer beauty is a "sight for sore eyes." Every morning...no matter my mood, when i look out my window and see the various birds congregating at the feeders,in the trees and bushes, and in the sky....i am 100% guaranteed to have my spirit lifted 10 fold!! Thank you ,beautiful birds!:-) You rock!;-)

Fantastic article! Here's

Fantastic article! Here's reason # 11....their sheer beauty is a sight for sore eyes!!!!! Every morning...no matter my mood, when i look out my window and see the various birds congregating at the feeders,in the trees and bushes, and in the sky....i am 100% guaranteed to have my spritit lifted 10 fold!! Thank you ,beautiful birds!:-) You rock!;-)

I enjoy watching birds at my

I enjoy watching birds at my feeders:)

Cannot believe this cannot be

Cannot believe this cannot be shared on Facebook.....Why not ???

PS I tried to copy and paste

PS I tried to copy and paste the link, to share the wonderful word about birds, to encourage others to appreciate birds. However, I received the following message on your article's link: The privacy settings for this attachment prevent you from posting it to this Timeline. Too bad - I could have sent it to family and friends. It's sad that you guys prevent the sharing of these wonderful facts. It's not like you wouldn't get credit; the link would have been to EVERYthing in your article, your name!! I haven't ever run into this before, with other magazines. Oh well, I tried. : )

I wish there was a facebook

I wish there was a facebook link to this article, so we could like and share it on FB, as some science newsletters offer! This article doesn't appear to be at your FB page. Just something to think about. : )

I encourage everyone to watch

I encourage everyone to watch the Emmy-winning PBS Nature documentary "My Life as a Turkey." It is heart-warming and riveting as it follows a naturalist's two-year experience being mother to 13 baby turkeys from hatchings to maturity. The visuals are beyond beautiful. PBS airs it, or you can watch it online here:

And then have a happy and gentle meat-free Thanksgiving.

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