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Why do birds matter? Interesting answers from Audubon and beyond

It’s not just what birds do for us that counts — it’s what they get us to do to save them, and thus to save ourselves.

Black-throated blue warblers fight coffee pests in Jamaica's Blue Mountains.
CC/Flickr/jerryoldenettel

A magazine devoted to the single subject of “Why Birds Matter” might have proved irresistible even if it weren’t an issue of Audubon, which certainly knows the territory.

And then there was the gorgeous, approximately life-size cover photo of a Florida grasshopper sparrow, about to follow the passenger pigeon into history.

So when the March-April issue turned up a few days ago, this novice birder parked by a sunny window with a view of the suet feeders and read it from cover to cover, learning that birds matter to Audubon writers and editors because:

They are essential to the function of healthy ecosystems, transferring pollen and distributing seeds and disposing of carrion (including road kill, which also carries a financial benefit to many a municipal budget).

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Because they perform important functions in agriculture, like pest control. For example, the coffee-berry borers in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains can’t be fought with pesticides, wasps or any other reliable means save the black-throated blue warblers nature has conveniently placed there.

Because they inspire us to innovation in technology and design, from Alexander McQueen’s feathery fashions to a new style of jet aircraft with adjustable wings.

Because birds and birding are economic engines, driving significant business in tourism, manufacturing and, of course, publishing:

In an economic analysis released in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that, based on a 2006 survey, birders spend $12 billion annually on travel, plus an additional $24 billion on equipment like binoculars, camping gear and nest boxes. That money ripples through the economy and generates $82 billion in output, employs 671,000 people, and enriches state and federal governments by $10 billion.

These ways of valuing species are of course familiar to the conservation-minded, whether or not their particular interests run to birding, though I imagine there are fresh examples for almost every reader.

Intrinsic value, too

But there’s another, edgier piece in the magazine that veers sharply away from those conventional currents and insists that birds “matter because they matter. Every damn one of them.”

Audubon’s editors gave this piece top billing on the contents page, for which I give them great credit (while wishing they’d posted it online as well). The writer is the naturalist Scott Weidensaul, and he was not in a word-mincing mood when he laid down these lines:

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.

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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.

As a former scribbler of editorials on the themes of environmentalism as enlightened self-interest, as a smart investment, as a hedge against the mortality of our own heedlessly destructive species, I couldn’t agree more.

Whether this kind of analysis cheapens birds or appreciates them, dollarwise, valuing them for reasons that can be monetized invites a host of new questions about whether birds matter less or more than other things.

Is this bird worth more than that one? More than this mammal or fish? Is this patch of of prairie worth more as bird habitat or as an industrial park?

At which point we might as well stop asking Why do birds matter? and cut right to How much does this bird really matter anyway?

Jonathan Franzen’s story

I will admit that I hoped for a bit more out of Audubon’s Q&A with Jonathan Franzen (online here) because his story of personal spiritual salvation by birds is one I’ve kept handy since he laid it out in a commencement talk at Kenyon College back in May 2011.

What follows is an excerpt from Franzen’s remarks as revised for publication in The New York Times; other versions are all over the Web, still, and you can listen to it on Kenyon’s page. After a thousand words or so on the cult of BlackBerry and the falsity of Facebook friendship, he said:

When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.

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Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.

But then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. . . . and love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin. Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.

And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain….

When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real anger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?

How birds make us better

Is this a utilitarian argument for saving birds, that birds matter because they can save us from drowning in anger, despair, pain? I suppose it is, to a philosopher, but to me there are two key distinctions to be made.

One is that the value of Franzen’s salvation is hard to monetize — certainly harder than measuring the contributions of black-throated blue warblers to the Blue Mountain coffee harvest, which has been priced at $125 per acre.

The other is that the impact of Franzen’s actions, like the actions of countless others bestirred by birds, is hard to parse into the categories of giver/receiver, donor/beneficiary.

It seems to me the singular thing about birds — and why they matter so much — is their power to recruit so many of us into efforts we may think of as avian husbandry but  in fact transcend all the usual divisions.

Because birds are often “umbrella” species, their protection ensures good habitat for many others. And birds have been drivers of so much conservation over the years. That sparrow on Audubon’s cover seems certain to go extinct, which is bad news; the good news is that it would be the only bird species known to have vanished from the continental U.S. since 1987.

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It’s not just what the birds do for us that matters. It’s what they get us to do for them — and thus for ourselves, and all other species, throughout the web that binds us one and all.