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.
A passerine called the Canarian chiffchaff pollinates the Canary bell-flower, an ornamental plant with edible fruit that grows on Spain's Canary Islands. (It was cultivated in the royal garden of England's Hampton Court Palace as early as 1696.) And when the cold weather keeps insects away, China's winter-flowering loquat tree reproduces with the help of two passerines, the light-vented bulbul and the Japanese white-eye. The loquat's fruit is eaten in many forms and used medicinally.
7. They help farmers.
After California farmers harvest their rice crops, they need to get rid of the leftover rice straw. Burning it is cheap, but it pollutes and is therefore illegal. An alternative, tilling the straw into the soil, is expensive.
Fortunately, farmers can enlist help from wintering waterfowl that travel along the Pacific Flyway. By foraging for leftover grain, weeds, and bugs in flooded rice fields, mallards and other birds help decompose the straw. This reduces the need to till the fields, providing considerable savings to growers, concluded a 2000 study from the University of California-Davis. Farmers would be well advised, the report noted, to flood their fields and create wetlands for these avian wayfarers.
8. They poop.
Seabird guano--rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients--provides an important source of fertilizer and income to many people living near seabird colonies. This has been true for centuries: Guano was considered essential to the Incas' agriculture, "upon which their civilization was based," wrote Edward How Forbush in 1922. Two years earlier ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy determined that the best Peruvian guano was 33 times as effective as barnyard manure based on its nitrogen content.
Unfortunately, guano production is one of the most threatened avian ecosystem services, due to the rapid decline of seabirds worldwide, say scientists. Among the culprits are fishing longlines, which lure and then drown such birds as black-browed albatrosses.
9. They are heroes.
Birds possess skills that historically made them useful to militaries. During World War I pheasants detected incoming hostile aircraft at long distances and "gave the alarm by their insistent cries," says one account; canaries, of course, offered early warnings of poison gas; gulls followed submarines in search of garbage. Carrier pigeons successfully navigated through shellfire (and past bullets aimed at them). They carried messages that helped the Allies capture German submarines, and that saved the crews of downed seaplanes and a sunken mine sweeper.
10. They just are.
We have all been transported by simply watching a flying bird. We have been lifted out of ourselves; we have felt our hearts race when the wings flash by.
Every one of us has seen what really matters--seen it in the blistering stoop of a peregrine, heard it in the richly harmonic dawn song of a thrush, caught its essence in the slow undulations of white pelicans against a blue sky.
And we've realized that for those moments, we were privileged to experience something beyond ourselves--that older, greater, glorious world that a wild bird inhabits, and which through its very existence embodies and makes vivid to us.