Birds Matter Because They Do

Photograph by Bob Croslin
Photograph by Robert Clark
Photograph by Joel Sartore

Birds Matter Because They Do

The intrinsic value of these creatures is incalculable. 

By Scott Weidensaul
Published: 04/01/2013

You can't say Foster E.L. Beal wasn't thorough. By the time of his death in 1916, the 77-year-old scientist had spent a quarter-century in the employ of the federal government, at the Department of Agriculture and at the Bureau of Biological Survey, the forerunner to today's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And Beal spent a good portion of those 25 years slicing open the stomachs of birds. Many, many, many birds--37,825 of them, to be exact, with "particular attention to the woodpeckers"--including at least two ivory-billeds--"the Icteridae, cuckoos, flycatchers, thrushes, and swallows," according to one obituary. "He [also] made a study of the mockers, wrens, thrashers, titmice, creepers, nuthatches, and kinglets, but did not report upon them."

Beal was a pioneer in "economic ornithology," the peculiarly morbid area of study in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that strove to show which birds were "good" and which ones were "bad"--at least from an agricultural perspective. Since most farmers considered pretty much any bird bad--crop-thieving, fruit-pecking, seed-filching, chicken-stealing pests--this counted as progress.

It was Beal, for example, who calculated that native sparrows in Iowa ate the equivalent of 196,000 bushels of weed seeds annually--an observation "which has been quoted hundreds of times, and which apparently will go on forever," in the slightly exasperated words of his official obituary in the journal The Auk.

"Professor Beal must be given a large share of the credit for the progress that bird protection has made in the United States. . . . He did more than any other man to reveal the basic facts that were needed to convince so-called 'practical' men of the value of bird protection," the obit continued. "He often referred to the Audubon Societies as the army . . . but, he said, we furnish the ammunition."

And I salute Professor Beal for his efforts. But here's the thing: Almost a century after he poked through his last gooey bird gut, we're still trying to justify birds to "so-called 'practical' men" and women.

And I'm tired of it.

Why birds matter? The question bothers me on a host of levels. Sure, I could easily spin a raft of Bealesque arguments, though today the language is couched in phrases like "ecosystem services." We can quote studies that show how migratory songbirds provide the equivalent of thousands of dollars in pest-control services per square mile of forest and how they support economies through tourism, serve as indicators of pending environmental doom, control rodents, disperse seeds, and even fertilize the land with their guano. (And we do provide the compelling fiscal argument in "Follow the Money," page 50.)

But the assumptions that underpin all these arguments are the same: It's a tough world, there's no free lunch, and those pretty birds of ours have to pay their freight.

While I don't dispute for a moment that birds provide all these services to a functioning ecosystem (and many more that we can barely comprehend), I'm increasingly reluctant to play that justification game, because it inevitably cheapens the very thing we're trying to protect.

And that we still ask "Why?" tells me that we continue to miss the fundamental lesson here, one any child can understand the first time he or she sees--really sees--a bird in flight.

Birds do not need to justify their existence to us; they predate us, "they move finished and complete . . . fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth," as naturalist Henry Beston noted more than 75 years ago.

Does a red knot need to justify itself? How about the one I once removed from a net on the Delaware Bay, whose metal leg band had worn so thin and smooth the number was almost unreadable--but which, when carefully examined, showed that for 15 years this bird had been making the great leap from the Arctic to Patagonia, more than 18,000 miles annually. That's nearly 280,000 miles in all, a distance to the moon and partway back. And since red knots may live 25 years, that bird may see close to half a million miles beneath its wings before it dies.

But forget the epic travelers, the globe-girdling species like Arctic terns flying 47,000 miles in a single year, or the albatrosses that cross immensities of the Southern Ocean, a hundred thousand miles of wind and wave, the way we cross the street for groceries.

Even the smallest bird is a miracle that needs no further vindication or defense--which by its very existence demands our attention and respect. Remember this: Each of the birds that makes the leap into the void is a treasure. Remember this: There are no trash birds. Every one of the hundreds of virtually identical immature sharp-shinned hawks that comes down the ridge on a long, cold October day; each of the innumerable song sparrows sulking in the hedgerow like brown mice; every single one of the great horde of mud-gray semipalm sandpipers out on that shimmering tidal flat, as alike as photocopies--every damned one of them is of great and surpassing worth.

So yes, fight for birds. Carry the gospel. Lobby. Plead. Harangue. Cajole. Badger. Do whatever it takes. For tens of millions of years, birds have blessed the skies with flight and majesty. Now it's time for us to do our part.

Just don't expect me to make some miserly, penny-pinching, cheese-paring argument about why birds matter. We must lift our heads from the ledgers, stop counting the half-digested weed seeds in their guts, and recognize that birds matter for their own sake.

There is certainly no time for complacency, no time for timidity or half-measures as the world closes in tighter and tighter, filling up the land with junk and schlock, crowding out the beautiful and the wild and epic. There are fewer and fewer places where you can still feel the north wind on your face and good rock under your feet; taste the salt air and squint against the glare of sunlit sand without a T-shirt shack obscuring the view; or stand at the bedchamber of a glacier and see an unsullied forest spill to the horizons below you.

And over all of these sweet and precious places, there soar birds.

While they still fly, obeying the ancient rhythms of the planet, there is still a need to fight, and a reason to hope. 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 Plains sky.

We have, all of us, been transfigured simply by watching a flying bird. We have been lifted out of ourselves; we have felt our hearts race, felt the hairs on the back of our necks rise when the wings flash by.

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.

Birds matter. Period.

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