When I began writing this column two years ago, I wanted to impart upon my neighbors in the greater Northern New Mexico area the importance of birds and how we as individuals could help them in an increasingly uninhabitable and hostile world. Having now spoken to a few ornithologists and researched the same species I see in my backyard, I’ve come to approach this with a heavier heart, knowing just how dire the situation for birds has become. But I still find myself asking “why”? Why invest time into birds of all things? Why do I care, and more importantly, why should anyone else?
The easiest and most tangible answer is to point out the ecological benefits of birds. They happily devour the crawling pests that would otherwise infest our crops and trees, saving farmers millions in pesticide use and allowing the natural beauty of flowers to shine uninhibited. Fruit-bearing plants of all species depend on birds to distribute their seeds far and wide. Vultures pick apart the disease-ridden remains of roadkill before a rabies outbreak can take place. Even their feces act as a fertilizer, creating vibrant ecosystems where they congregate on shorelines.
More than that, birds have served as a source of scientific and spiritual inspiration. The variations in Galapagos finches led Darwin to develop his theory of evolution, the aerial acrobatics of birds inspired man to flight, zippers were modeled after the way bird feathers mesh together and still today scientists study birds for solutions, such as students in Socorro affixing taxidermized birds to drones to create more efficient flights.
Two studies published in Scientific Reports last year found that being around birds and hearing birdsong had a positive effect on a person’s mental well-being. Pueblo Indian culture has long held reverence for birds. Eagles are seen as guardians of the sky and messengers to the spirit world, the Thunderbird is a symbol of fertility and abundance, and hummingbirds reflect happiness and the sweetness of life.
Feathers have played a role fashion for centuries and our modern garb still features them whether physically or in homage to their patterns and shape. Birds are a living embodiment to that concept we call “beauty”, that captivating, ethereal sight that draws in our eyes like a siren song. It’s only natural we’d feel at peace around them.
The most striking thing I’ve learned in my time writing about birds is how little we still know about them. I’m frequently left flabbergasted at the abyss of mysteries we have yet to unravel about birds the world over. This is my reason for caring about them: that we still have more to learn from them. Evidence of self-awareness in corvids like crows and magpies begs further questions about the limits of consciousness among birds and the depth of their minds. For all we know about bird migration, scientists still don’t know the full story.
Migration routes aren’t instinctual and can change slightly to accommodate new obstacles. Currently it’s hypothesized they navigate using a combination of Earth’s magnetic field, the sun and stars, and memories of previous landmarks. And this opens further questions- how do they sense the planetary magnetic field? How can they tell stars apart? What do bird memories look like? This is why I care. Even if they didn’t have any economic impact, even if they didn’t play a crucial role in ecosystems, it’s the ocean of mystery surrounding birds that keeps me diving back in.