Who runs the world? Birds. BIRDS!
The animal kingdom comprises millions of species of which, approximately 8 million are known to mankind. We share our planet with 8 million non-human living organisms! Out of those millions, birds make up a very small fraction of the animal kingdom; just about 10,700 species have been discovered. The Aves class may be diminutive but their presence in the ecosystem and the services they provide; are one of the main reasons that we humans are still able to tread on Earth. For decades, birds have been a subject of ridicule and mockery given their tiny brains and demeanour. The term “bird brain” was coined around the 1920s as a synonym for stupidity in humans. However, studies since the late 20th century have disproved this notion; birds are extremely intelligent and highly sentient animals which play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem health and preservation. They thus provide a range of ecosystem services which not only benefit the ecosystem itself but also directly impact human life.
According to the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, ecosystem services can be distinguished into 4 categories: provisional, regulating, cultural and supporting. Birds have contributed significantly in all 4 categories. Provisional refers to services by birds and their body parts in the form of food, medicine, clothing and ornamentals. Regulating services comprise pest control, pollination, seed dispersal and scavenging. Cultural services range from recreational activities like birding and eco-tourism to religious following and spiritual enrichment. And finally, supporting services refer to ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling and behaviour-driven ecosystem engineering.
Birds contribute to a large portion of diets globally with many cultures consuming eggs, nests and meat daily to satiate their nutritional requirements. In the rural areas of Brazil, Peru and Colombia, almost 26% of bushmeat consumed by the locals is acquired from species such as curassows, guans, trumpeters, and chachalacas. Besides the obvious meat and eggs, certain bird species have also managed to serve up a global delicacy in the form of their nests. Species such as the white-nest swiftlet and black-nest swiftlet construct their nests with their own saliva. This is believed to add a delectable flavour to the dish. Dubbed the “Caviar of the East”, the birds nest soup comes with a hefty price tag with nests selling up to approximately $2400 per kilogram! Medicine comprises another essential provisional service provided by birds. Lab studies have shown that extracts from eggs and body tissues of common ravens, wild turkeys and chicken contain anti-microbial properties against pathogenic bacteria. Given their highly evolved immunocompetence, turkey vulture meat boasts of cytotoxic effects against human cancer cells.
Pest control is one of the most noteworthy and lucrative services provided to humans by Aves. Their food hunting controls everything, right from the fabric of small ecosystems to large anthropogenic activities like agriculture. Bird-driven pest controls are capable of protecting entire forest ecosystems and plantations, especially one crop that dictates the productivity levels of humans across the globe: coffee. Coffee berry borers, as the name suggests, are insects which depend on the coffee berry for their survival. If left unchecked, these little critters can demolish anywhere between 50% to 100% of the berries on plantations and can thus generate huge losses in global coffee production. Farmers are forced to spend up to 11% of their income solely on pest control strategies for coffee yields which are also simultaneously threatened by climate change. Species such as the black-throated blue warbler and American redstart provide protection against the complete ruination of coffee plantations. In one study conducted in Jamaica’s blue mountains, researchers found that bird pest control alone was valued at $125 per hectare which contributed to one-eighth of the total crop value. Insectivorous birds account for nearly 70% of all known bird species and they play an essential role in regulating agricultural and forest ecosystems. Pollination is another important service provided by birds which many plant species rely on heavily for their survival. Nearly 1000 bird species are involved in pollination worldwide. It is estimated that bird pollination alone makes up 10% of the plant diversity in some islands and contributes to almost 15% of it in Australia! Another undervalued but extremely critical service is scavenging; bird species such as vultures are known as nature’s clean-up crew as they are unmatched in the kind of service they provide. Rotten carcasses become breeding grounds for pathogenic bacteria which can cause diseases such as anthrax. Additionally, they also attract other scavengers such as feral dogs and rat populations which are carriers of such harmful pathogens and can transmit them to both wild and domesticated populations in the ecosystem. Vultures, however, are able to devour carrion to the bone within 30 minutes and ward off any possible transmission of bacteria due to the highly evolved, acidic environments in their stomachs. A vulture’s stomach acid is 10-100 times stronger than that of the human system, so pathogens don’t stand a chance to even make it to the vulture’s intestines. Even though vultures are not directly preyed upon, certain populations have declined by 99% due to the rampant use of a drug known as diclofenac. Farmers use diclofenac as a pain killer for their cattle and the presence of this drug in the carrion has consequently led to severe mortality rates amongst vultures. In the last decade, the absence of these species is even more palpable than dog bites as the subsequent human health costs have cost India approximately $34 billion!
Wildlife and nature have been a primary source of income for millions of people around the world. The past 2 decades have seen an increase in eco-tourism services partly due to their beauty and their evanescence. Bird tourism provides a major source of income for local communities and is also effective in supporting species conservation efforts for the region. Biodiversity hotspots such as neotropical regions are major tourist traps as they attract an estimated 3 million visitors annually. A study conducted by a New York Zoological Society biologist revealed that a single wild macaw can rake in US$4700 annually and US$ 165,000 in its entire life span simply by making an appearance in its coloured plumage! Many birds such as the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard also serve as an important flagship species for bringing international unity and revenue for the conservation and preservation of their habitat. Birds have also influenced art and knowledge and have been featured in cave art, folklore and religion. Fun Fact: Mozart’s opening theme of The Third Movement of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G was actually inspired by his pet starling!
(Also Read: How To Be A Sustainable Tourist)
Birds are crucial ecosystem engineers as they are capable of creating, maintaining or even altering an entire habitat. Nests built by owls and woodpeckers function as a shelter, roosting and breeding grounds for a plethora of other species in the ecosystem. Numerous vertebrates and invertebrates depend on sap wells as a primary food source created by woodpeckers’ drilling into the sapwood. These not only support other life forms but also maintain a rich and healthy diversity in the ecosystem. Birds provide another notable supporting service through their contributions to nutrient influxes in the ecosystem. Seabirds congregate in large numbers on remote oceanic islands. Their colonies are often associated with huge accumulations of guano or excreta which are rich in phosphorous and nitrates. In the 19th century, guano became a precious resource due to its high nutrient content, and various uses in fertilizers, gunpowder and the explosive and chemical industries. Guano’s popularity rose to new heights and the global need for its possession resulted in the ‘Guano Wars’ among Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Imagine all that fighting over a piece of bird poop!
Birds are one of the most fascinating yet undervalued members of the animal kingdom. Right from saving whole battalions in WW2 with nothing more than a wing beat. Anthropological evidence gathered over centuries and scientific evidence all point towards one common inference: life is but a barren wasteland without birds. No economic analysis can measure the true worth of these winged sentinels as they are one of the very reasons that human beings and whole ecosystems are alive today. So, the next time some human makes a wisecrack about birds being beady-eyed and nut brained, remember that we owe it all to these feathered heroes and it is an honour to be able to tread on the same soil as them!
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