Birds and Humans
Birds and humans
Why are we so fascinated with birds? From the earliest cave paintings and ceramic effigies of prehistoric humans to the present, we find close links between birds and ourselves. Those links are related to several things that draw us together:(1) our fascination with and envy of the ability of birds to fly;(2) the meat and eggs they provide us; (3) their colorful plumage that we admire and often use to decorate our own attire; (4) their down feathers that we use for insulation, and other feathers that we've used as writing instruments, to fletch arrows, to fan royalty, and to dust our homes; (5) their beautiful voices; (6) their hollow bones which we have at times used to produce tools and even flutes with which to emulate their songs; (7) their ritualistic courtship behavior; (8) their attentive parental care; (9) the vigor of their territorial defense; (10) their seasonal migrations; and (11) their diversity.
Certainly the utilitarian aspects of our association with birds would remain even if birds were less conspicuous. Our fascination with birds might be found in many seemingly simple things we share with them: perception of color, song, concern for the decor of our homes, parental care, the awkwardness of adolescence, territorial defense—the list could go on. Our fascination with birds might also be found in things deeper within our psyche—things we don't really share with birds, but that we can imagine as sharing: emotional things such as love, hate, fear, pride, sadness, and hope. Yes, as one recent book title has it, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
Cultural significance of birds
We, like most birds, are most active in the light of day—a time when the light-sensitive cone cells of our respective eyes allow our brains to interpret the world in color. Color has a common basic value to primitive humans and to birds. It allows both to identify ripe fruit from that which is not ripe, poisonous fruits from those that are edible. With the ability to see color come a number of gifts—lagniappe—something a little extra. From the human perspective we might think of them as aesthetic, but from the birds' perspective they seem utilitarian as well. The diversity of patterns and colors in the plumages of birds facilitate recognition of members of their own species, just as colors of uniforms allow us to recognize players for the home team. We use color we find pleasing as decoration for ourselves and our surroundings—to please ourselves and those we wish to please. Birds do the same thing. The bowerbirds of Australia have drab plumage, but decorate their courtship bowers with objects of specific hues. Natural selection has favored the development of colors and patterns that help fulfill needs among birds for the attraction of a mate and defense of a territory, and camouflage for protection from enemies. In many ways we share such needs and such benefits of color. We differ from most mammals in being able to see color, a trait we share with most birds. The beauty we recognize in the colors of birds might be looked upon as a celebration of our uniqueness.
Birds and music
The purity of tones, diversity of melody, and the predictability of the rhythms of bird songs and mechanical sounds are music to our ears. For birds the sounds are messages: "This territory is occupied," "I'm an available and desirable suitor." We have intercepted—no, merely eavesdropped—on their conversations. We have borrowed them for our own uses and embellishment. For us the songs are messages as well, reflections of our well-being and desires. Bird songs have influenced the works of great composers. The common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchus), and common quail (Coturnix coturnix) can all be heard in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral Symphony." Béla Bartók recorded bird songs in musical notation and included them in his compositions. His final work, "Piano Concerto no. 3" includes bird songs he heard during his stay in North Carolina. Antonín Dvorřák also used bird songs and the red-winged blackbird's (Agelaius phoeniceus) territorial "oak and leo" call can be heard in his Opus 96 from his days in Spillville, Iowa.
Birds imitate us as we imitate them; they have borrowed sounds from our musical repertoire. My African gray parrot (Psittacus erithacus), whose name is "Smoky" dutifully sings "On Top of Old Smoky"—but his rendition is no better than mine. In a possible turn about of truly musical influence, Mozart was passing a pet store near his home in May of 1784 when he heard the strains of the allegretto theme from his G major concerto which he had written just five weeks earlier. He immediately went into the store and purchased the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) that was singing it!
We have not only borrowed from the music of birds, but around the world various cultures have also incorporated elements of bird courtship displays in their own dances. The Blackfoot Indians of the northwestern United States mimicked the foot-stomping and strutting of displaying male sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and even wore feathered costumes that mimicked the birds' plumage. The Jivaros of Amazonia, perhaps best known for shrinking human heads, mimic the courtship displays of the brilliant orange cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola). The people of Monumbo of Papua New Guinea mimic the courtship of the cassowary (Casuarius sp.).
The behavior of birds has always provided the basis for metaphors, symbolism, mythology, and lessons to be learned. The courtship cooing of doves has long been symbolic of human love and courtship, the powerful beak and talons of eagles have similarly served as a metaphor for strength and a symbol of our armies. The silence, stillness, attentiveness to our presence, and human-like expression created by the forward-facing eyes and facial disc of feathers on an owl have led to owls becoming symbolic of wisdom. Yet owls are not wise, but highly instinctive in their behavior, the symbolism resulting from the accident of their diurnal inactivity and the convergence of their binocular vision with our own—an adaptation that gives both of us the ability to judge distance and size—critical abilities for an animal to possess if leaping from limb to limb as our ancestors did or if diving suddenly to pounce on a mouse in near darkness, as an owl does.
Many expressions in human languages draw symbolism from the language and actions of birds. At times visual metaphors are obvious, such as our association of the peacock (Pavo cristatus) with vanity—or with the kaleidoscope of colors on a television network. At other times the links are fanciful, such as the notion that white storks (Ciconia ciconia) bring babies or that ravens (Corvus corax) foretell death. The link between magpies (Pica pica) and talkative humans is a clear reference to the chatter of the birds, as is the use of the word "parrot" to refer to an individual who repeats what has been said. "Eagle-eye" is a reasonable descriptor for a human who picks up on details. To have one's "ducks in a row" is a verbal expression of the visual impression of organization provided by a view of a duck being followed by a brood of ducklings in single file behind her. The impact of "bird words" on our language and culture is immense, though at times the link to birds has been lost and only the expression remains. Have you ever been "goosed?" Really? If you've walked across a pasture that was patrolled by a vigilant gander you might understand. Yes, they do come up from behind in a surprise attack with a sharp "goose."
Birds used to hunt and fish
Falconry, using a falcon or other bird of prey to hunt, was the sport of kings in the Middle Ages. It was practiced from the steppes of Asia to the sands of the Middle East and the British Isles. Social position not only allowed time for the sport, but also dictated which species of bird could be used. The techniques and vocabulary of falconry were ritualized. Falconry persisted through the centuries and in the twentieth century experienced a popularity that, without regulation, contributed to the decline of such prized species as the peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and gyrfalcon (F. rusticolus). By the mid-twentieth century laws were in place to protect falcons, but raiding of traditional nest sites continued. Then came the pesticide years when birds of prey suffered as a result of biomagnification of organochlorines in their tissues and populations of birds like the peregrine plummeted. In the last decades of the twentieth century, following bans on the pesticides, the tools of falconry were used to save the birds.
Other birds have also played the role of hunter for humans. For more than 1,000 years, Japanese and Chinese fishermen have used trained cormorants to capture fish for them. A ring is often placed around a cormorant's neck to prevent it from swallowing large fish, but well-trained birds need no such ring.
Domestication of birds/artificial selection
Domestication of birds has occurred in several human cultures, typically involving species kept for meat or eggs, but at times birds were domesticated for other reasons first. Chickens were likely the earliest domesticated birds; archaeological evidence suggests domestication in the Indus Valley more than 5,000 years ago. There is no historic record of the domestication of the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), a bird native to Southeast Asia, but by the early days of the Roman Empire it was already a commonly kept bird throughout the civilized world. No bird has been so important to humans as the chicken—nor so selectively bred. Varieties have been developed not only for meat and egg production and for fighting, but also for eggs of specific shell color, ability to tolerate crowding, and for a diversity of fancy plumages.
As urban human populations have grown, so have needs for mass production of foods. Factory farming of poultry now provides considerable protein to populations around the world. During the last two decades of the 20th century the production of chicken meat increased by an average of 6% per year and by the year 2000, factory farming of chickens was producing more than 20 billion broiler chickens per year.
While we have developed chickens that produce more meat and eggs, there are consequences to such efforts. Animal rights advocates question conditions under which the chickens are kept, charging that we maximize production in minimal space, processing chickens as if they were widgets at a manufacturing plant. Confinement of birds in high-density populations makes them more susceptible to disease, a problem we have addressed by dosing industrial flocks with antibiotics. These are often the same or similar antibiotics used by humans, and widespread use for poultry production has led to development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Now these resistant strains of bacteria are making humans sick and treatment difficult. Industrial poultry farming involving millions of chickens produced per farm has also resulted in high nitrogen runoff into rivers and streams, contaminating water supplies and contributing to other environmental problems.
Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were domesticated in Mexico about 2,000 years ago and were first taken to Europe in the sixteenth century. They spread rapidly through Europe as a domesticated bird and were taken back to the New World early in the seventeenth century. The turkeys served by the Pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving were likely descendants of the Mexican birds rather than the native wild turkeys. Modern commercial turkeys are the result of hybridization of the domesticated Mexican form with the wild turkey of the eastern United States.
Ducks (the mallard, Anas platyrhynchos) and the greylag goose (Anser anser) were domesticated centuries ago in temperate Eurasia for meat, eggs, and down. Mute swans (Cygnus olor) were domesticated in Britain for their meat and, had they not been domesticated, might have become extinct as a result of overhunting. Two species of guineafowl (Numida spp.) were domesticated in Africa for meat and eggs.
The only South American bird to be truly domesticated is the muscovy duck (Cairina moschata). The ostrich (Struthio camelus), emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), and rhea (Rhea
americana) are kept for meat, feathers, skins, and eggs. Ostrich eggs were made into elaborately carved and decorated cups by Egyptians centuries ago, and in the late twentieth century as ostrich farming grew in popularity, there has been a rebirth of artistic uses of ostrich eggs.
Birds as companions
Although the first association of birds and humans almost certainly included birds in the role of lunch, they have also been kept as messengers, for the sport of racing, for fighting, hunting, and as pets. The origins of these associations are lost in prehistory. The early Greeks and Romans kept birds for meat and for mail service. Early armies—and even armies of the twentieth century—used homing pigeons to send word of the tide of battle home from the front lines.
One 2002 estimate suggests that there are over 31 million pet birds in the United States alone. Companion animals such as birds long have been recognized as making us "feel good" and as helping to relieve our stress. Medical specialists now recognize the therapeutic role that pet birds can have.
Birds in entertainment
Our recognition of the behaviors and voices of birds have become so much a part of our culture that some have become stylized as icons of entertainment and sports that have been enjoyed now by several generations of humans. Donald Duck's waddle may not quite be that of a real bird, but the caricature fits, as does Donald's human-duck hybrid voice. Woody Woodpecker's appearance and voice are movie icons borrowed in stylized form from the North American pileated woodpecker. Big Bird is much more generic, but a lovable character recognized by young and old. The role of birds as mascots for athletic teams is really big business—and sometimes contentious. When the University of Central Florida opened its doors in the 1970s, the student body twice voted for "Vincent the Vulture" as their mascot, conjuring up images of a trained turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) circling the opponents' bench. But the administration overruled the choice, settling instead for Pegasus, a mythical winged horse.
Real birds have had roles in human entertainment as well, ranging from both staged and real cock fights, to the many birds in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," to pets that have helped define a star's screen persona, such as the television private investigator, Beretta, who had a cockatoo named Fred, and the African gray parrot in the movie Being John Malkovich.
The interest that humans have shown in birds has evolved from seeing them as a source of food, feathers, or other products and as a source of awe, to keeping birds for sport or as pets, to collecting the skins and eggs of birds, to attracting wild birds to feeders, to observing birds as a pastime, to tallying observations of birds as a sport—sometimes even under competitive circumstances. Like the collectors of old, birders today find thrill in seeking birds. Unlike them, the culmination of the hunt is not measured in skins and eggs, but in lists of species seen or heard. Among the earliest of organized birding efforts are Christmas Bird Counts, initiated by the National Association of Audubon Societies in 1900 to replace the traditional "after Christmas dinner" shooting of birds. Birders keep life lists, year lists, state lists, and yard lists. Many birders do "Big Days" in which they strive to see as many species as possible within a 24-hour period. A "World Series of Birding" in New Jersey pits teams against one another in a grand 24-hour hunt through the state.
Some modern birders pursue their sport from an easy chair in front of a television set, carefully listing those caught, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident, on film or sound tracks in the background of movie sets. As an ornithologist, I have often smiled at old westerns that always seem to include a view of a turkey vulture circling high over a dead or dying desperado. Directors of those films always seemed compelled to include the "skreee" cry of a red-tailed hawk dubbed in as if produced by the naturally mute vulture. Equally amusing are the Star Trek episodes with scenes on far off planets that have Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) calling in the background. Identifying those televsion
and movie birds is often a challenge and can reveal just how intimately some birders come to know birds. The challenge contributes to learning more, and it's all part of the lure of the list.
Old Tarzan movies with the story set in Africa often had the loud call of a pileated woodpecker in the background. These were not all chance recordings. Some were likely the result of deliberate dubbing in of a call that had been recorded in the 1930s by Arthur A. Allen, an ornithologist at Cornell University. Allen collaborated with Hollywood filmmakers in developing techniques for recording natural sounds. The results of those efforts not only added "realism" to movies, but also contributed much to the scientific study of bird sounds.
The contributions of birders to the science of ornithology
Amateurs have often made important contributions to science through their avocations, but there are few sciences where amateurs have made as many contributions as in ornithology. The bird-finding and bird-identification expertise of modern birders has contributed greatly to our knowledge and understanding of birds through both independent research and through organized research programs that enlist the aid of amateurs. The Christmas Bird Count was not initiated as a research program, but over the years data from it have been used in efforts to monitor bird populations. The Breeding Bird Survey of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service makes use of this large cadre of skilled amateurs. So too does Project Feeder Watch and other programs through the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. While watching birds has grown from a simple pastime to a competitive sport for some, we are now seeing an emphasis on "birding with a purpose"—furthering our knowledge and abilities to conserve birds and their habitats through collaborative scientific studies.
Feeding wild birds
Feeding backyard birds became popular at the close of the nineteenth century and at the close of the twentieth century it was enjoying further resurgence, especially in temperate areas of developed nations, developing into a multi-billion-dollar a year industry. In 1980–81, about 20% of North American adults purchased seed to feed wild birds; by 1997, about 30% of North Americans over age 16 were involved in feeding wild birds. Bird feeding was long ignored by scientists, viewed with apathy, or even viewed as harmful to bird populations, but in the late twentieth century it became the subject of several scientific studies. Clearly, feeding backyard birds has tremendous educational potential, bringing birds to within easy
viewing distance for young and old. Range expansion of many North American bird species has likely been facilitated by bird feeding. Such expansions may include the northward movements of the tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor) and red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the southward expansion of the evening grosbeak, and the eastward expansion of wintering rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus). The extent to which such range expansions can be attributed to bird feeding, versus the extent to which it is simply easier to document the expansions as a result of bird feeding, is not clear. Many factors are usually involved in range expansions, including such things as habitat modifications, changing climate, and elimination or reduction of predators or competitors, as well as increased or more dependable food supplies.
North America has been the "melting pot" not only for immigrant humans from many nations, but also for more than 120 bird species that have been deliberately or accidentally released in sufficient numbers to establish breeding populations. About 40 of those have been successful; some, such as the European starling, rock dove (Columba livia), and house sparrow (Passer domesticus), have been incredibly successful. Each has its own story. Rock doves were brought with early immigrants as semi-domesticated birds that were kept for food and sport. House sparrows were brought to control insect pests in the gardens of immigrants, and though not prone to long distance dispersal, succeeded in conquering North America and many other areas as a result of deliberate introductions. For example, many wagon trains heading west from St. Louis took along a cage of house sparrows to assure pest control in gardens at the end of the journey. Early attempts to introduce the European starling apparently failed, but an attempt in 1890 succeeded beyond all expectations. That effort was for the sole purpose of introducing a bird that had been mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry IV! Today the European starling is touted as the most abundant bird in North America.
The greatest diversity of successfully introduced exotic birds can be found in warmer areas. Florida, southern California, and Hawaii all have significant exotic bird populations. The most successful of these birds are ones that can live in association with humans. Indeed, many have been inadvertent introductions as a result of escape of pet birds and birds destined for the pet trade. Some, such as the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) and crested myna (Acridotheres cristatellus) in North America have established small, relatively stable breeding populations and such small populations are rarely linked to problems. As numbers increase, however, competition with native species and other problems have often become evident. Many of the introduced exotics are secondary cavity nesters that compete with native cavity nesters—birds that nest in cavities such as a hole in a tree. Populations of many native North American birds have suffered as a result of competition with house sparrows and European starlings. The budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) has been reported competing with purple martins (Progne subis) for nest sites in Florida. Aside from competition with native species, European starlings, house sparrows, and rock doves are often a nuisance in making messy nests on buildings, have the potential for dispersing diseases and parasites to poultry, other birds, and humans. Their droppings have damaged buildings and monuments and have created health hazards for humans. While the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) is considered a serious agricultural pest in Argentina, it has for many years been imported into the United States for the pet trade. In 1972, a crate of monk parakeets destined for the pet trade was dropped as it was being unloaded during a snowstorm in New York. The birds survived and began nesting in the area. Other escaped monk parakeets have likely augmented their population and the species now nests along the Atlantic coast from New York to Florida and west to Louisiana. In Florida the species has become a serious problem as a result of building its large stick nests on electric transformers.
In the last years of the twentieth century the Eurasian collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) made it to south Florida after escaping captivity in the Bahamas. It succeeded in establishing breeding populations there and by 2002 was nesting in much of eastern North America. Other exotic doves have become locally established, such as the ringed turtle doves (Streptopelia risoria) in several North American cities, but have shown no tendency for wide dispersal.
Some introduced birds have been moved about the world not only with government approval, but also by various governments. Exotic game bird programs of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and various state and provincial governments have resulted in the introduction of many species, few of which have been successful and most of which have left us with continuing questions. Even for the ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), often touted as a highly successful introduction, questions have been raised about competition with native species. In at least some areas, populations have not been sustained and more pheasants are released from game farms than are shot by hunters each year. These programs have fallen out of favor because of the recognition of problems with such introductions, but the "potential" for new game birds is continually discussed and there have been past subsidence and resurgence in interest in introducing exotic game birds. Memory of the problems and failures often seems short-lived.
Among the famous failures were repeated introductions to North America of the European common quail (Coturnix coturnix), a migratory species that simply disappeared following introductions. Some apparently followed migration pathways long incorporated into their genetic make-up. Instinct seems to have programmed them to head a certain direction, and fly a certain distance or length of time to reach wintering areas. But when moved from Europe to North America, following that genetic roadmap at least sometimes dumped them in the Gulf of Mexico.
Birds as vectors of human disease
In the summer of 1997, a particularly lethal form of influenza appeared in Hong Kong and chickens were identified as an intermediate link in its transmission to humans. Thousands of chickens were killed and a human catastrophe was averted. One of the consequences of maintaining high numbers of birds near human population centers is the hazard posed by their role as intermediate hosts for human diseases.
In August 1999, Americans were shaken by the news of a new disease in North America—one that was killing humans, horses, and birds. West Nile virus, originally discovered in Africa, had spread to Europe, then to North America, and wild birds were part of the transmission cycle. This mosquito-borne virus in its most serious form causes encephalitis, an often fatal inflammation of the brain. As of July 2001, more than 70 species of North American birds have tested positive for the disease, though most were crows (Corvus spp.). Birds don't "cause" the disease, but their role as an intermediate host, and the potential for rapid spread of the disease through bird migrations, have generated some negative attitudes towards birds. As of 2002 the disease has been found along the Atlantic coast from New York to Florida and as far west as Louisiana. The threat to humans is important, and the threat to wild birds is very serious. Since members of the crow and jay family (Corvidae) seem particularly vulnerable, an increased incidence of the disease in Florida could seriously threaten the endangered Florida scrubjay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). Thus far there is no evidence that West Nile virus can be transmitted directly from birds to humans, though those handling dead birds are urged to take appropriate cautions. In this case, chickens serve us in the fight to prevent the disease. Penned chickens have been placed in many areas and their blood is regularly checked for evidence of the virus, thus these sentinel chickens serve as an early warning system.
Other bird-human disease links have generated concern in the past, although most of the diseases involved are not commonly found in humans. Psittacosis also known as parrot fever, is a rare human disease caused by a chlamydia, a parasite closely related to bacteria. Humans usually get the disease by inhaling spores in dust from dried bird droppings or from handling infected birds. In humans the disease causes flu-like or pneumonia-like symptoms and it is usually not fatal.
We know now that birds other than parrots can transmit the disease and the disease is increasingly referred to by the more appropriate names "chamydiosis" or "ornithosis."
Aside from publicity associated with the discovery of West Nile virus in North America, one of the most frequently reported "disease links" between birds and humans in the United States is with the fungal disease histoplasmosis. In this case, birds do not deserve the negative association made: they neither harbor nor carry the disease. The disease-causing organism, Histoplasma capsulatum, is a fungus that grows in nitrogen-rich soils in the southeastern United States. It is spread to humans when such soil is disturbed and generally when spores or bits of the fungus are blown by the wind and inhaled by humans. The link with birds is related to the millions of blackbirds that are sometimes found in individual winter roosts in the Southeast. Excrement from the roosting birds enriches the soil and provides optimum conditions for the growth of the fungus. But many other sources of soil enrichment also occur: including cattle feed lots, poultry farms, heavily fertilized agricultural fields, and roosting concentration of bats (which also get blamed for the disease). The problem comes when such enriched soil is disturbed, dries out, and the fungus becomes airborne.
Problems between birds and humans have always included bird consumption of foods we might otherwise eat or feed to livestock. Flocking birds such as crows, starlings (Sturnidae), doves (Columbidae), blackbirds (Icteridae), gulls (Laridae), and parrots (Psittacidae) are among the primary offenders. The same and other flocking birds also create problems in urban centers, around airports, and other areas. Whole industries have built up around the development, sale, and deployment of devices and chemicals to thwart depredation of crops by birds. Yet in some areas the problem remains very serious. In parts of Argentina, for example, the monk parakeet is said to consume about 50% of the annual grain crop. Such figures, however, must be viewed with a skeptical eye. There is no doubt that the birds take grain, some of which would otherwise make it to human tables. But how much of the grain taken is spilled grain coming from the ground? And
how many weed seeds and harmful insect pests do these same birds take? The charges against birds are rarely presented in the form of a "cost-benefit" analysis, but they should be. Here is a challenge for economists and where greater understanding is needed.
Ornamental uses of bird feathers and bills
Native cultures around the world have employed bird feathers in art and decorative efforts. Some of these efforts have contributed to the extinction of species. For example, the first humans to reach the Hawaiian Islands made cloaks for their royalty of the yellow-feathered skins of the Kauai oo (Moho braccatus). It took feathers from thousands of birds to make a single cloak. Similarly, the Maoris of New Zealand made use of the skins and feathers of the huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), contributing to their extinction.
In the late 1800s feathers—and even whole birds—became popular ornamentation for ladies' hats in Western cultures. At one point the aigrette feathers of egret species sold for as much as 32 dollars an ounce; they were literally worth their weight in gold. The decline in populations of species such as the snowy egret (Egretta thula) was recognized before it was too late and became a cause that led to the Audubon movement in North America and a new era of conservation activity around the world.
Birds as religious symbols
In most cultures, birds have always played major roles as symbols. A few of these include the sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) of Egypt symbolized the moon god, Thoth, a deity of wisdom, apparently because its curved bill resembled the crescent moon. Cranes were symbolic of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. The hoopoe (Upupa epops) plays a major role in the "The Conference of the Birds" in Islamic mysticism. Doves are well recognized as symbols of love and peace, and the Holy Spirit in Judeo-Christian cultures is often symbolized as a dove.
Birds in myths, literature, and art
The legend of the Roc brought back from Marco Polo's travels may well have a basis in fact in the elephant birds (Aepyornithidae) that appear to have survived into historic times on Madagascar. These birds were flightless, stood 11 feet tall (335 cm) and laid an egg that was large enough to hold the contents of seven ostrich eggs—or as one author suggested, 10,000 hummingbird eggs! Elephant bird eggs are still occasionally found buried on Madagascar and have at times been salvaged by native peoples for use as buckets. A more profitable use has been their sale to eclectic collectors.
The causes of endangerment
Certainly the single most important cause of endangerment of modern birds is habitat destruction. Deforestation and conversion of natural habitats to landscaped, irrigated, and fertilized areas dominated by exotic species not only replace native habitats, but also fragment remaining natural environments, thus limiting movement of habitat-limited birds among populations. Exotic animals often compete with or prey on native birds. Particularly on islands, the impacts of exotics can be devastating. On the island of Guam, for example, the brown tree snake was accidentally introduced in the 1950s. Without natural controls, it has increased in abundance and has decimated native forest birds. At least twelve species of birds have disappeared from the island. For a brief time from the 1940s into the early 1970s, organochlorine pesticides were an incredibly serious threat to birds high on the food chain such as herons, egrets, hawks, falcons, eagles, pelicans, and their relatives. These pesticides were entirely human-made and had been developed to be persistent—to stay around and continue to control insect pests without frequent spraying. The developers succeeded in their efforts only to learn that vertebrates could not break down the chemicals and they were stored in fatty tissue, becoming more concentrated, "biomagnified," with every meal.
Studies of the accumulation of toxins in bird tissues taught us that humans too were vulnerable to these chemicals and birds became recognized as "environmental barometers" capable of providing us an early warning of serious environmental problems. In the mid-twentieth century, we learned that heavy metals such as lead and mercury were biomagnified in living tissues. So too was another class of human-made compounds, the polychlorinated biphenyls—known as PCBs. PCBs had been developed for use in electrical transformers, but are now recognized as posing serious threats to both birds and humans.
Hope for a feathered future
By the early twenty-first century, nearly every state in the United States had a state Ornithological Society or state Audubon Society that published a journal including results of original observations and research with birds. Most developed nations of the world have at least one national ornithological journal—some have several. In North America The Auk, The Wilson Bulletin, The Condor, and The Journal of Field Ornithology are international journals focusing primarily on the results of original research with birds. The list merely begins with these because they encompass the whole field of ornithology. We could continue with specialty journals such as Waterbirds, Birding, and The Journal of Raptor Research. In the United Kingdom, The Ibis, and in Germany, the Journal für Ornithologie, stand among the oldest of continuously published scientific journals. In short, our knowledge and understanding of birds is increasing at a geometric rate. This knowledge is no longer remaining within the realm of science, but is now quickly passed on to a growing birding public through the pages of such popular magazines as Birder's World, Bird Watcher's Digest, and WildBird in North America, and literally scores of popular bird magazines published around the world.
In the first half of the twentieth century motion pictures brought birds to audiences around the world, often through organized programs such as the Audubon Screen Tours in North America. Then television brought such programming into our homes. Then satellites sent such programming around the world. In the early twenty-first century, the Internet has further revolutionized the way we disseminate knowledge about birds. This information age has, of course, also brought growth of human populations and accelerated destruction of habitats. But with new understanding of birds and their needs, and the ability for individuals around the world to band together on behalf of troubled species, conservation efforts have reached new levels and provide us with great hope. Efforts to conserve birds and their habitats and to reduce the rate of human-induced extinction of species grew immensely in the closing decades of the twentieth century. These endeavors are intimately linked not only to research and dissemination of information, but to the approval and implementation of laws such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973 in the United States. This monumental piece of legislation has a primary focus on North America's endangered species, but ramifications that are global. In concert with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and endangered species laws in other countries around the world, a framework for global protection of the diversity of birds and other living creatures has been put in place. The key is to keep the momentum going, but for many species and in many areas of the world, it is a close race with extinction.
There are many successes and signs of hope in this race. Following the banning of many organochlorine pesticides in the 1970s, there have been major increases in populations of species such as the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) and other fish-eating birds whose numbers had declined precipitously. It was a sad day when the last free-living California condors (Gymnogyps californicus) were taken into captivity in a partnership involving zoos, federal and state agencies, and conservation organizations. It was a last ditch effort to save the species through captive breeding, but the effort paid off. Condor numbers grew through careful stewardship and, though still critically endangered, the species once again flies free. Along the way a great deal was learned that has been applied to conservation efforts for other species.
Other captive breeding and release programs have brought nesting peregrine falcons back to North American cities, and increased bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) populations dramatically. Combinations of captive-breeding, habitat-restoration, nest-box, and educational programs in the early twenty-first century are assisting many species on the brink of extinction. In Hawaii, captive rearing of the 'alala, or Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) is underway. In Puerto Rico the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata) teeters on the edge of extinction, aided by captive breeding and nest boxes, but so low in numbers that hurricanes, predators, and poachers continually threaten it. In Mauritius, captive breeding and nest boxes saved the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) from imminent extinction, bringing a low of only six known individuals in 1974 to nearly 300 birds by 1994.
Other unique, often high-technology, tools have contributed to conservation efforts at the beginning of the twenty-first century. These include biochemical tools such as DNA-DNA hybridization to look at relationships among birds and examination of trace minerals in feathers to determine site of origin of individuals. Miniature transmitters and satellite radio-tracking have been used to monitor movements of some species. Ultralight aircraft have been used to teach whooping cranes (Grus americana) a new migratory pathway.
The ultimate keys to conservation of biodiversity rest neither with laws and their enforcement, nor with captive breeding and other costly and labor-intensive manipulations of the creatures. All of these are good, and at times critically necessary. But they are not inherently sustainable. The keys to conservation of biodiversity are to be found in providing the habitats needed for naturally reproducing populations and in understanding the values of biodiversity. What does each species contribute to that diversity? How does each interact with its world and with us? Sound research and education are the ultimate keys, because to know is to love—and we protect what we love. If we know the wonders of these feathered beings we share our world with, we will want to protect them.
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Jerome A. Jackson, PhD