What Have Birds Ever Done For Us?

Most people of a certain age will chuckle at the mention of the famous “What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?” clip from Monty Python’s “The Life Of Brian”.  I was reminded of that scene when I began to read an excellent paper about the value of birds by 

As the introduction of the paper says, some birders and conservationists will feel offended when asked to explain why we should care about wild birds.  This community already values them highly for the pleasure they obtain from seeing and hearing them and simply being around them.  However, this value is felt only by those already steeped in birds and their environments.  The vast majority of decision-makers, politicians and policymakers aren’t convinced by this view and, in this age of growing pressure on our environment, decisions are increasingly being made based on a judgement about the impact on the economy.  This means that it is vital for conservationists to communicate the value of birds, and other wildlife, in terms that are recognised, and respected, by people that make important decisions about development.

This paper examines three areas where birds make significant contributions to the economy – seed dispersal and pollination, pest control, and scavenging and sanitary services.

Here are just a few examples from the paper:

According to Diana Tomback, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Colorado at Denver, the estimated cost of replacing CLARK’S NUTCRACKERS’ seed dispersal of white-bark pine is USD 1,980 to USD 2,405 per hectare and USD 11.4 to USD 13.9 billion across the range of whitebark pines in the U.S.

Birds such as Nutcrackers and Jays are highly valuable for seed dispersal.

In Malaysia, oil palm farmers put up BARN OWL nest boxes when local rodents developed resistance to the rodenticide warfarin. The switch to owls had the added benefit of population increases of other species that were being poisoned by warfarin, including mammalian predators, such as common palm civets and leopard cats.

Owls, such as this Northern Hawk Owl, are important for controlling rodent populations.

And in India, the crash in the population of vultures in the 1990s, caused by the administering of the veterinary drug diclofenac (which causes kidney failure in vultures when they feed on the carcasses), has been devastating.  The paper explains that, as vultures disappeared, there were increases in rotting animal carcasses which resulted in a 20-fold increase in the number of feral dogs at just one Indian rubbish dump.  Economist Anil Markandya and colleagues calculated that from 1992 to 2006 alone, the disappearance of vultures led to approximately 48,000 additional human deaths from rabies and cost USD 34 billion to the Indian economy.

Vultures provide a huge economic benefit by cleaning up rotten carcasses, sadly often valued only when they have disappeared.

As researchers focus on this issue, I am certain there will be many more examples of “hidden benefits” of wild birds from across the world.  As Cagan says in the paper:

“Only a small fraction of bird ecosystem services have been evaluated economically, but even these few examples show how birds are critical for the healthy functioning of ecosystems and contribute billions of dollars to the world’s GDP.”

As much as some in the conservation community may find it offensive to need to set out the economic value of wildlife, this type of analysis will be an essential, and increasingly necessary, part of the argument to protect and conserve wild birds and their habitats and one that is written in language that policymakers, politicians, the public and even hard-nosed economists will understand.  The paper is recommended reading for all politicians in all countries!

After reading, as in the Monty Python film, some sceptics might well say “Ok, APART from the seed dispersal, pollination, pest control AND the sanitary services, what have birds ever done for us?” but it might just convince some that wild birds and their habitats are worth saving and, for that reason, it’s a hugely important paper that deserves wide dissemination.

Huge credit to Cagan for setting out the economic value of birds so clearly and succinctly. The full paper can be accessed here.  A Chinese version is available here.  And more on this subject can be found in Cagan’s book entitled “Why Birds Matter“.

Thank you to Professor Per Alström for flagging up the paper to Birding Beijing and to Li Siqi for the excellent Chinese translation.


2 thoughts on “What Have Birds Ever Done For Us?”

  1. In Canada where I live swallows and swifts can feed their chicks as many as 400 mosquitoes and black flies daily, reducing the need for chemical pest control near waterways. Unfortunately the aerial insectivores are our fastest declining species probably due in part to harmful chemicals.

    1. Pesticides are a double cost. First, they cost money to buy… and second they cause immeasurable harm to ecosystems and, in particular, the natural pest controllers, increasing our dependence on chemical pest control. We are losing our long-term, sustainable, natural pest control as we spend our money. Not an effective long-term policy for the planet or for humans (but great for chemical companies).

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