Birds improve our quality of life. Watching them fly around a backyard feeder or jump across the grass can be an entertaining diversion, mood booster, and window into animal behavior. The sighting of our avian counterparts provides a connection with nature and a reminder that we coexist with wildlife. And they do so much more for us behind the scenes: We reap many benefits by sharing our planet with birds through what are called âecosystem servicesâ.
Ecosystem services include all the positive benefits that natural systems provide. The term includes everything from a basic supply of food and oxygen to more subtle benefits such as how wetlands reduce damage from storms and floods. Labeling these natural processes as “services” makes it easier for environmentalists and conservationists to quantify the value of nature (sometimes literally in dollars) as well as what we lose from environmental damage.
Birds make great contributions across habitats, and they are crucial for people and the planet to thrive. When bird species disappear, their special functions and benefits also disappear. And introduced species cannot easily replace the critical roles of native species, according to one new study Posted in Scientists progress. This means that it is essential to conserve the diversity of the birds that we have.
You may already be familiar with some of the ecosystem services that birds provide, such as pollinating your favorite fruits. Here are some of the most surprising ways birds (metaphorically) make the world go round.
Their poop is an important fertilizer.
Bird droppings, also known as guano, play a key role in disseminating nutrients, and seabirds are especially crucial. After months of eating fish and other sea creatures on the high seas, they visit dry land to nest in large colonies of hundreds or thousands. When seabirds bring their full stomachs to land and poop, they concentrate enormous amounts of nutrients in their coastal breeding grounds.
In northwest Greenland, for example, turtledoves come to land en masse every summer to breed. In doing so, they move a estimated at 3,500 tonnes nitrogen, an important nutrient for plants from the ocean to the soil. All this nitrogen stimulates the growth of local grass in the normally barren arctic habitat and feeds grazers such as hares, geese, reindeer and muskoxen, which are hunted by humans for food. Where there are doves, the number of musk oxen is 10 times higher.
At one point in human history, significant deposits of bird guano were so valuable as a fertilizer for cultures than Spain started a war above them. The advent of synthetic fertilizers means bird poo is no longer combated, but like Greenland, guano deposits still support many ecosystems and people.
The spread of bird spores can keep entire forests healthy.
It is well known that birds carry seeds. They munch on their favorite berries, then distribute seed-strewn feces, ensuring new plants keep growing. Recently, scientists have discovered that some birds also have a penchant for finding valuable mushrooms. In the forests of Patagonia, Chucao Tapaculos and Black-throated Huet-huets are voracious truffle hunters. Every time they dig up a mushroom, eat it and jump to the next one, they move the spores and propagate a variety of tasty mushrooms.
This more than multiplies the bird’s food source: truffles are actually the fruiting bodies of a complex underground fungal network that keeps the surrounding trees alive. Fungal filaments underground carry nutrients to tree roots in exchange for sugar.
The mutually beneficial partnership is the scaffolding that supports the entire forest system. The birds ensure that it remains intact.
Birds are environmentally friendly exterminators.
What birds eat is often just as important ecologically as where they poop. For example, many birds are voracious predators of parasites. Barn swallows can consume up to 60 insects per hour. Above a farm field, swallows save crops prone to pests and leave us more food. And installing barn owl boxes on farms reduces populations of destructive rodents, such as waffles. Likewise, the installation of nesting boxes for the Western Bluebird can save the grapes on the vines. In this way, the promotion and protection of bird habitat is a great alternative to widely used, harmful pesticides.
Bird construction crews create habitat.
For bird watchers, woodpeckers are double good news: a great sight in themselves and home builders for other cave-nesting species. Research has shown that cavity nesting birds, that is, birds that build their homes in tree hollows or other holes, do best when woodpeckers are plentiful. In a recent study from Texas, birds like chickadees, flycatchers and wren were more likely to survive in the long term if they built their nests in abandoned woodpecker cavities instead of those created by decay. Holes dug by the woodpeckers gave better access to tasty insects and offered better protection against predators.
Woodpeckers are so important to other species that monitoring them can reveal to scientists how the whole bird community do. These are environmental indicators: if woodpeckers are present, you can bet that many other birds are as well.
They are the ultimate in animal sanitation workers.
Vultures are the only vertebrate animals that feed exclusively on carrion. (Other scavengers, like coyotes, also hunt for food.) Because vultures are so uniquely concentrated, they are remarkably good at picking up leftovers. Research has shown that when vulture populations decline, the number of rotting carcasses in a landscape mountedâBy a factor of 10 in a Study in South Carolina. In a kenyan study, the scientists noted that without vultures, carcasses took three times the standard time to decompose. More rotten stuff means a higher risk of disease for humans and other animals. The next time you go for a hike and don’t come across a dead deer, thank a vulture.
Some birds lend a leg (or a wing) to other species.
If you are still not convinced that the birds are there to help you, know that some directly help other species, including humans. The larger Honeyguides live up to their name and range throughout sub-Saharan Africa: there the brown and cream-colored birds, which eat beeswax and insect larvae, literally guide them. people towards honey. In a well documented document misunderstanding, the human honey hunters attract the greatest guides of honey by sound. (Different people across the continent have different communication cues that they use to call honey guides. The Yao community in Mozambique uses a distinctive trill. Hazda hunters in Tanzania rely on a whistle.) Then the birds lead them to the beehives.
It is an example of real teamwork. Hunters help birds because they can more easily dismantle and dismantle a beehive than a solitary bird. And following the honey guides cuts down on the time hunters spend searching and increases their chances of finding a beehive.
This is a vivid example of a truth that most avian enthusiasts already know: Birds make life a little sweeter.