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Conservation Education Corner – November 2016

by Denny Olson FAS Conservation Educator

Denny Olson

Things are calming down a bit since Birds of Prey Festival and our Mentoring and Monitoring Day, doing science and “woods-detective” training in the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area with 28 high-schoolers mentoring 28 elementary kids. So far, in my brief tenure, we have served 616 people in our programs – a good start to the fiscal year!

While working up to Christmas Bird Counts, Winter Trails Day, Great Backyard Bird Count, Migratory Bird Day, FVCC Seniors Institute and Beauty of Birds, I finally have some time to look back and ahead, and reflect a bit on much broader issues.

At social events, even with relatives, when I describe myself as a “bird nerd”, or “bird geek” and am overtly proud of my “bird brain”, they look up from their smart phones – perhaps for the first time that day – and stare at me like I’m from Mars. “You what?”

For a large majority of Americans, birds fly by, unnoticed, and an outdoor cacophony of bird song is simply white noise. Birds are, well, just there.

Squinting skeptically … “What’s so important about birds?” (So happy you asked. And, I’m so ready for that question …)

First of all, the music we listen to from our smart phones would not even exist without birds. We don’t come naturally to anything but grunts and guttural screams. Complex pitch changes, harmony, inflection, rhythm and cadence – perhaps even our language – evolved under the influence of good teachers, far more accomplished in the world of sound and its meaning than we are even today.

There are an estimated ten quintillion insects in the world (that’s 19 zeroes). There are 6 billion of us, so we are outnumbered about three-hundred billion to one. Not good odds. Lucky for us, there are four hundred billion birds in the world, many of whom eat insects, some as many as 2000 each day. They’re on our side. I’ll put up with a little poop on the car for that kind of trade. They save farmers trillions of dollars, save forests, and greatly slow the spread of diseases.

Of the roughly 10,500 species of birds, on the average, about 144 species go extinct every year now, a much higher rate than “normal” rates of extinction in the geologic record.

Birds also offer free shipping (for seeds, pollen and nutrients). Many, many, many plants are completely dependent on birds. And, most animals on earth are completely dependent on plants for air quality, slowing soil erosion and pretty much all of our food.

Scavenger birds like vultures, ravens and magpies are the primary cleanup crew. They are followed by tens of thousands of assistants in turning death back into life — in the cycle which allows life to go on. Even after a few weeks without that crew, can you imagine the smell?

Birds are indicators; if they successfully raise chicks in whatever environment they inhabit, we can rest relatively assured that that place is probably healthy. Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, they are often an early warning system for problems in our life-support system.

Bird watching (by us geeks), contributes 82 billion dollars to our American economy every year, 10 billion to our government coffers, and employs 600,000 people. It is the fastest-growing outdoor recreational pursuit, by a wide margin.

How many artists have been inspired by birds, who then proceed to inspire us with their music and their art? They are eye-candy — and they fly! Bird watching helps maintain good mental health, helps us learn faster, keeps us physically healthier, and enriches our hearts. Without them we wouldn’t just be poorer. We’d be dead.

So, what good are they? Well, by their example, they can certainly remind us to ask the same question about ourselves …

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