As an avian ecologist, birds are near and dear to my heart. But how did I discover birds? And what’s so important about birds that I would dedicate my career to their protection?
Let’s go back in time 11 years.
My 12-year-old self is kneeling in the backyard’s damp grass, a large cardboard box over her head. The box has two tiny peepholes. She can’t see anything. It doesn’t help that the sun had yet to rise.
Why was I hiding in a cardboard box 11 years ago? Let’s rewind a couple weeks.
A Lonely Tween Finds Birds
My family had just moved across the country, because my dad had accepted a job offer in San Antonio. I don’t know if the move was made easier or harder by the fact that this wasn’t our first time transplanting our lives for the sake of a better job (a concept I didn’t quite grasp as a child). Either way, it was summer and I was alone. School wouldn’t begin for a couple months, I didn’t have any friends. What’s a tween to do?
I spent time outdoors.
Our new backyard was filled with trees rather than a perfectly manicured stretch of grass. It was new and I loved exploring it.
One day, a weird rasping noise caught my attention. What is that?
I crept carefully around the backyard, gauging whether I was approaching or leaving the sound, until I located the source…a hole in a tree (nowadays, my ecologist brain calls that a cavity). The next few days, I became as vigilant and patient as a cop staking out a suspect. Whenever I had free time, I was outside, craning my head at an awkward angle in the search of an answer.
What was the source of that sound?
A flash of white and black burst from the cavity!
For the briefest second, a bird streaked across my vision before disappearing into the trees. But I had seen enough for a Google search. I sprinted inside, pushed a cardboard box off the chair, and typed the following into the search bar:
“Black and white bird tree hole”
My GenZ is showing, or maybe Google is just that smart, because I Googled this very search just now and sure enough, it returned the correct answer.
I had seen a woodpecker.
But that Google search led to a much more important discovery…Turns out, careers with animals weren’t just limited to domestic pet vet or livestock vet. There was such a thing as…ornithology. A new possibility was opened to my young mind. It is a path I have not strayed from for the past decade.
The Top 3 Reasons To Dedicate Your Career to Birds
But perhaps you’re wondering…what’s so great about birds that you would want to dedicate your career to them? Good question! Read on for the Top 3 Reasons to Pursue Ornithology as a Career...
1. Protecting Birds Protects the Entire Environment
Our planet is incredibly interconnected. The water you use to brush your teeth was once part of an ocean teeming with the first living microorganisms. The brussel sprouts you had for dinner were the result of soil bacteria that turn atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen that plants can use to grow. But it goes beyond these simple connections.
Water doesn’t just exist for us to drink. Oceans play a major role in regulating climate, algae that live in oceans are responsible for vasts amounts of the planet’s oxygen, whole foodchains depend and are specifically adapted to ocean biomes. Vegetables don’t just need nitrogen, but the sun, carbon dioxide, insect-eating animals to act as pesticides…
Nature is truly a mind-boggling system that we will never completely understand. It’s one of my favorite things, but it does present a problem. How can we protect something so complex? How do we even know if the ecosystem is fairing well or poorly?
Birds are incredibly sensitive to changes in the environment. Just as miners would take canaries into mines as a warning of dangerous gas, ecologists track bird populations to assess the state of the environment. It’s a little like taking nature’s temperature. If the birds aren’t doing well, then something is wrong. They are called bioindicators.
2. Birds are Living Dinosaurs
There’s something fascinating about dinosaurs. The thought that something so different, that something so massive and significant could have existed before any of us had ever opened our eyes is humbling, awe-inspiring, mysterious…And perhaps it’s also alarming to realize that animals so great and majestic could disappear from the earth all at once.
Except, they didn’t all disappear.
Descendants of theropods (a group that includes T-rex’s), birds lived alongside dinosaurs. Why did birds survive when all other dinosaurs didn’t? Research is ongoing and we are unlikely to ever discover the full picture. However, some of the main theories include size (smaller is usually better in catastrophic events), having beaks and gizzards, and luck. Whatever the reason, dinosaurs survived after all. Though a tiny sparrow might feel unrelated to a velociraptor, we do have birds such as the five-foot-tall shoebill (pictured above) that make the connection a little more clear.
3. Birds Pollinate our Crops and Eat Pests
What did you have for lunch today? A bird was an essential part of the process.
Though modern agriculture puts a heavy emphasis on pesticides, nature provides its own non-destructive pesticides: birds. Insect-eating birds, such as swallows and blackbirds constantly swoop over fields, feasting on the very pests that threaten crops. If you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you might consider birds a threat to crops! But we shouldn’t forget that other birds are eating the aphids and caterpillars that can eat tomatoes even faster than birds.
Furthermore, birds such as hummingbirds join the bees and butterflies in the essential quest of pollinating plants that they might reproduce.
Birds provide many other ecosystem services, but their role in our food production is one of the most important. Keep your eye out for my upcoming article on the importance of birds in coffee-growing!
Bonus Reason: Birds Have Innate Value
Is there any species more beautiful than birds? I know that’s a subjective question. We have butterflies and large felines and brightly-colored frogs, but isn’t there just something special about birds? I mean, take a look at these pictures and tell me birds aren’t God just plain showing off.
In order to protect birds, we don’t need to keep building an intensive list of how they are useful to us. As living creatures, they have value in and of themselves.
Birds have captured the imagination of humans for thousands of years. You’ll find them in poetry, art, wisdom…even Jesus mentions them! They are truly a gift and I’m grateful to play a role in their protection. So, I’ll end with a call to action:
Go outside! Even if it’s just a parking lot somewhere. Pay attention to the birds. They are a gift for you. Breathtaking, don’t you think?