Why Do Birds Matter?

Great Egret (c) Doug Harr

"Birds are important because they keep systems in balance: they pollinate plants, disperse seeds, scavenge carcasses and recycle nutrients back into the earth. But they also feed our spirits, marking for us the passage of the seasons, moving us to create art and poetry, inspiring us to flight and reminding us that we are not only on, but of, this earth." — Melanie Driscoll, Director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Flyway

"Birds matter because they give us wings. And because if we save the birds, we will save the world." — Pepper Trail, USFWS forensic ornithologist

Birds have been environmental health barometers at a local level ever since canaries were used to indicate the safety of air in coal mines two centuries ago.  Today, however, we use monitoring data and analytical tools for wild bird populations to serve as environmental health barometers on a large spatial level.

Birds are bellwethers of our natural and cultural health—indicators of the environment’s integrity, upon which all humans depend for clean air and water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Here’s why:

  • Birds are found in virtually every ecosystem on earth.
  • Birds depend upon other biota and natural resources for their existence.
  • They are reasonably easy to observe and count.
  • Both amateurs and professional ornithologists can monitor bird populations effectively.
  • Bird populations have been monitored for more than a century and long-term databases exist.
  • Many bird species migrate, exploiting different habitats during a lifecycle.

Data from three continent-wide monitoring programs (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Breeding Waterfowl Populations, U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding Bird Survey, and Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count) are used to create bird population indicators for major U.S. habitats, which reflects the health of these habitats, and the environmental services they provide.