Why Conserve Birds?
Birds are part of biodiversity of immense value
The combined value of 17 different ecosystem services - such as pollination and water catchment - is estimated between US$16 and 54 trillion per year, around twice the entire world's Gross National Product. These services are not traded in markets and carry no price tags to alert society to changes in their supply or to deterioration of the ecosystems which generate them.
Biodiversity's genetic library accounts for about half of the annual increases in crop productivity and is also key to our capacity to respond to climate change, diseases and crop pests.
The annual world fisheries catch is worth more than US$50 billion and is a major source of animal protein. This is a resource that must be managed wisely.
A biodiverse environment is an invaluable source of new pharmaceuticals and other useful products. Of the 150 commonest prescription drugs used in the USA, 118 are based on compounds derived from natural sources.
About half of all plant species, including man food-producing crops, are pollinated by animals. In New Zealand the decline of native honeyeater species has led to declines in the native plants that rely upon them for pollination. In parts of the USA bee populations are now so depleted because of the modern agricultural practices that mobile beehvies are brought in to pollinate crops. This service is estimated to cost billions of dollars per year.
Societies value birds for economic, cultural, ethical and spiritual reasons
The world's commonest bird is the domestic chicken whose wild ancestors, the junglefowls of Asia, were domesticated around 5,000 years ago. The chicken's meat and eggs are an important source of protein for many people.
In parts of Africa a special relationship between birds and local tribesmen has developed. Honeyguides lead the tribesmen to the site of an active bees-nest. After the tribesman has opened the nest to obtain the honeycomb inside, a small piece is left as a reward for the bird. Over the centuries birds have inspired artists, and bird images are frequently used to adorn everyday objects like money and postage stamps.
Ever increasing numbers of people belong to bird societies. In the UK, more than one million people have joined the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) - more than the membership of the three largest UK political parties combined, and the number is continuing to rise. In New Zealand, 40,000 people are members of Forest and Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand) and in Malta, the membership of BirdLife Malta stands at more than 3,000, from a total population of 378,000.
The birdwatching industry is a growing economic force
Penguin Parade at Phillip Island Nature Park in Victoria is Australia's third largest tourist destination, after the Great Barrier Reef and Ayer's Rock. In 1995, 1,000 local jobs were dependent on the tourist trade to the park which attracted more than half a million visitors who spent an estimated US$63 million.
Every year 6,000-8,000 people visit the nature reserve of Cousin Island managed by Nature Seychelles. This was once a loss-making coconut plantation, but tourism revenue now sustains the reserve (an internationally important site for seabirds and three globally threatened species) and the local community.
In South Africa, the annual expenditure by birdwatchers is around US$12-27 million, with the Boulders Bay Penguin colony alone worth around US$2.4 million.
In 1991, the birdwatching industry was worth US$5.2 billion in the USA and around 191,000 jobs were dependent upon it. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, birdwatching in the USA showed a 155% growth in numbers.
Conserving birds clearly has great economic benefits.
Birds are indicators of the state of the environment.
Studying birds tells us about the habitats on which we all depend. The dramatic decline in Eurasian Skylark numbers in western Europe is indicative of the relentless intensification of agricultural practices and the non-sustainability of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy.
In Costa Rica, lowland forest birds are extending their ranges up mountain slopes, apparently because the high-altitude cloud-forests are drying out as a result of global warming.
Common Whitethroat numbers in Europe fell sharply in the late 1960s. The cause was traced to the desertification of their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, a problem exacerbated as a result of overgrazing by livestock.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a huge drop in the numbers of Peregrines and other birds of prey raptors in Europe and the USA was linked to the build up of DDT in the food chain, traces of which were increasingly being found in people. Could population crashes of raptors in Asia and elsewhere be indicative of a similar poisoning of the environment?
In general, places that are rich in bird species are also rich for other forms of biodiversity. Birds can be used as good indicators of these important areas.
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