Here are some unexpected or little known benefits that birds provide for us and the environment. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “What good is a _____?” Insert the name of an insect, mammal or bird. For people who are not interested in nature these other creatures that share the earth with us may just seem like decorations or worse, as impediments to economic growth, as in endangered species that put limits or regulations on development. The truth is that birds provide many and varied benefits to our lives and environment.
For those of us who are bird watchers or who feed the birds, we already know that they provide mood boosters that are good for our mental health. That in itself should be enough but there are more, sometimes obscure reasons. The next time someone poses the above mentioned question about birds, here are some answers. These benefits fall under the category of ‘ecosystem services’.
1. pollinating fruits – Birds that feed on flower nectar often collect pollen on their feathers in the process, than when
they fly to the next flower the pollen is transferred and pollination occurs. Hummingbirds and Orioles are our best examples here in the U.S., but there are somewhere around 2000 species of pollinating birds in the world – most in Africa and South America.
2. spreading fertilizer – Guano is the official name for bird poop and it is high in nitrogen. Farmers spend fortunes on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. People have harvested guano, especially from sea bird colonies for centuries. So think about all the free fertilizer you are getting as birds convert the wild bird food you are providing to grass enhancing fertilizer – it all adds up over time.
3. seed and spore dispersal – When birds eat fruit they end up dispersing seeds in their guano. Add to that the birds, like Blue Jays that gather whole acorns and bury them in the ground for future use. In this way oak forests are planted. But it’s not just seeds that birds spread, certain species collect fungi spores (accidently) and spread them. Recently certain species of birds in South America were found to be hunters of truffles – a delicacy for many people.
4. pest control – This is an important behavior for our comfort and environmental health. For example, Barn Swallows can catch and eat as many as 60 insects an hour. This covers a wide range of flying and annoying insects, but also some that can be detrimental to crops. Then there are the raptors that can be farmer’s friends as they are excellent at rodent control.
5. improved nesting opportunities – Recent research has shown that the cavities made by woodpeckers have a significant and positive effect on other smaller species of cavity nesters like Chickadees and Nuthatches. These premade nests are better than cavities made by the natural decay of tree trunks.
6. sanitation cleaners – The most obvious type of birds in this category are Vultures. They are able to quickly locate
dead animals and gather as a group to eat the carrion. But we can also find Crows, Ravens, and Bald Eagles feasting on animals that have died, often by collisions with cars.
7. guides to food resources – This last category is less well known but still important to some people. There are birds known as honeyguides in Africa that actually help lead people to hives that they can then harvest, leaving the beeswax and insect larvae for the birds.
So the next time you hear someone say, “What good is that bird anyway?” you have an arsenal of answers at hand. If you would like more details you can check the Audubon article from December 2021.
By Kate Crowley