Birds as Environmental Indicators

Orchard Oriole by Doug Harr Birds add life, sound and color to our lives. Watching wild birds is often a diversion from the pressures of our daily lives. We even value birds that we personally will never see; it is comforting and uplifting just knowing that our world includes birds that can offer joy in our lives.

Birds provide intangible aesthetic enjoyment and enrich our lives with their presence. This intangible value comes from knowing our world is still large and healthy enough to support a variety of bird species.

Birds are recognized as one of the most important indicators of the state of the environment. Because they are sensitive to habitat change and because they are easy to census, birds are the ecologist's favorite tool.

Changes in bird populations are often the first indication of environmental problems. Whether ecosystems are managed for agricultural production, wildlife, water, or tourism, success can be measured by the health of birds. A decline in bird numbers tells us that we are damaging the environment through habitat fragmentation and destruction, pollution and pesticides, introduced species, and many other impacts.

Birds are a part of the balance of nature. There is strong interdependence between all living things in the gigantic web of life and the removal of even the smallest form of life may in time endanger the entire structure.

The conditions of clean air, food, healthy plants and safe places to raise young that make good homes for birds and other wildlife, also make good homes for people; a habitat good for birds is a good environment for people.

In addition to the joys they bring to people's lives, birds are also valuable for economic reasons. Birds have ecological value as important elements of natural systems.

Birds provide insect and rodent control, plant pollination, and seed dispersal which result in tangible benefits to people.

Insect outbreaks can annually destroy hundreds of millions of dollars of agricultural and forest products. Purple Martins have long been known as an effective means to substantially reduce insect pest populations without the health and environmental costs (not to mention the economic costs) of harmful pesticides.

Birds play a critical role in reducing and maintaining populations of insects in natural systems. Birds eat up to 98% of budworms and up to 40% of all non‐outbreak insect species in eastern forests. These services have been valued at as much as $5,000 per year per square mile of forest, potentially translating into literally billions of dollars in environmental services.

Many farmers know the role birds play in helping to control agricultural pests. Birds can destroy up to 98% of over-wintering codling moth larvae, a major pest of apples worldwide.

Costs can also be incurred from not protecting birds—the cost of recovering endangered species from possible extinction costs millions of dollars per year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that $18.5 million was spent on recovery of the Northern Spotted Owl in 1995, and that is just one of many but essential, recovery efforts.

Coastal areas provide $23 billion in annual storm protection services to areas most vulnerable to hurricane and tropical storms. As a result of the disappearance of coastal wetlands in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina, additional wetlands vanished during the hurricane. The resulting lost protection of infrastructure, crops, housing, revenues, and employment and stable markets was valued at $1.1 billion.

--State of the Birds 2009