BIODIVERSITY underpins our lives, but it is rapidly being eroded. Birds which are part of biodiversity help us understand the natural world.
Over the millennia, and across all cultures, birds have given human beings inspiration, imagery and companionship. Nowadays, bird watching is a major economic force in many places. Birds are an important source of food for many communities, and the ecological services that birds provide to us are crucial and irreplaceable.
Birds embody key values in human cultures, ancient and modern
Some of our most enduring cultural symbols are birds, they reflect many qualities that human beings admire in them.
Cranes, parrots, kingfishers, doves, sparrows, and others have played a role in shaping the ideas and values of human societies. Birds of prey have been particularly revered, for their speed, agility and hierarchical dominance.
Ancient gods such as ‘Horus’ the Egyptian god of creation were often manifested as birds of prey, while Eagles continue to be national symbols of strength and power to the present day for some countries like Zambia.
Beautiful birds too, such as the Resplendent Quetzal in Central America, have commanded awe and respect, and feathers have provided their wearers with status and splendour down the ages.
Today, birds are repeatedly used as logos (Jesus Christ as divine wisdom), mascots (symbol of good luck) and images that express vital qualities with which we wish to associate ourselves.
Birds put life into the arts
Given their activities, diurnal habits, colours and songs, it is hardly surprising that birds feature so strongly in the world’s painting, poetry and music industries. Italian painters of the Renaissance used the Goldfinch as a religious symbol.
Birds have played a range of roles, symbolising amongst other things the lost innocence of Eden and the great passions that nature locks inside us all. Poets have treated birds in similar fashion, from the earliest surviving manuscripts in Chinese, Persian and Latin down to the present life activities.
Further, in music, composers down the centuries have drawn inspiration from birdsongs. This is because some composers have a belief that birds sing with the voice of God.
Birds bring us material benefits by the millions in number
A detailed history of the human exploitation of birds is yet to be written, and the contribution birds have made to human development remains largely unacknowledged. However, the debt we owe them is immense.
It is estimated that on any one day there are atleast some 25 billion chickens alive on earth. Domesticated geese, Ducks, Guinea fowl, Turkeys and Quail all make important contributions to human diets. In the past and still today, wild birds and their eggs have also supplied huge amounts of food to human communities.
Sometimes this exploitation has been strictly regulated, but mostly it is not, resulting in the extinction of some species. Sea and water bird colonies supplied immense volumes of feathers for the fashion and bedding industries. Seabird guano for fertiliser became so valuable to national economies that it drove major colonial expansions in the nineteenth century. A review of modern day usage reveals the huge extent to which we continue to use wild birds for our own ends today.
Birds supply vital ecological and social services
Among the vertebrates it is birds that provide the greatest restraint on insect populations, though the role of bats is also crucial. Many birds such as Pigeons, Hornbills and others are important as dispersers of seeds, others like Hummingbirds and Sunbirds are key pollinators of plants, Vultures help in disposal of corpses, while delivery of messages is done by the Pigeons. In the wild, the twin occupations of bird watching and sport hunting are pursued by millions worldwide, generating a major source of income in many areas.
Birds are major drivers of science and human self-knowledge
Birds have played a key role in many important developments in the life sciences. Darwin’s groundbreaking idea, evolution through natural selection, was inspired by Galápagos finches and shaped by the contemplation of pigeon varieties.
More immediately, the use of birds as environmental monitors has many significant applications bearing on human welfare. These range from documenting the reality of climate change and tracking the deteriorating status of planetary biodiversity to determining the presence and influence of pollutants in particular to aquatic and agricultural ecosystems.
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