Book News

Why Birds Matter; Avian Ecological Function and Ecosystem Services, edited by Cagan H. Sekercioglu, Daniel G. Wenny & Christopher J. Whelan, (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Cynthia D. Ellis

The “year of the bird,” 2018, is now gone.

Within our own organization, we may think we know the “why” of the value of birds.  We know and appreciate birds and believe we understand their place in mountains and everywhere.  But we often must provide details and rationale for our conservation efforts.  “Why Birds Matter,” is a book of essays and research that provides many examples of both, in ways that are pertinent not just to birds.

Within West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and on our own, we meet policy makers and those in the general public who are uninformed about interconnections in nature.  They may think or say, about any part of nature, “What good is it?  What is it worth?”  Books such as this one can help us learn more and share more…and, we hope, promote our conservation goals.

Attitudes from the past linger.  Societies formerly judged birds as “bad” or “good” in their perceived benefit or harm to humans.  “Chicken hawks” ate the farmyard poultry, but Purple Martins gobbled mosquitoes, or so folks used to think.  And a variety of cultural notions may be involved.  We realize that in our communities there is sometimes some antipathy to birds regarding messiness, crops, and predation.  We could then be fascinated to learn of Turkish traditions of feeding pigeons as a religious good deed, and that being hit by a pigeon dropping is considered good luck. But offering up that factoid from the book won’t help our causes.

What does help is twelve chapters focusing on all the benefits birds provide.  There’s a great deal of material presented here on habits and habitats, on crops and forests, on pollination and pest control.

For any of us who thought we already knew quite a bit about the positive contributions that birds make, there is certainly a revelation in these essays.  Although nearly each piece closes with a strong call for more research, the details presented are captivating.  Detail such as:

  • birds saved Dutch apple crops from insects
  • the decline of vultures in India led to more disease due to a rise in rats and rabies
  • jays select only healthy nuts and travel farther with them than squirrels
  • crows’ roosts can increase soil fertility
  • hummingbirds depend upon sap “wells” made by sapsuckers and time their migration to coincide with activity of those larger birds.

It is the sum of these details, as well as each individually, that may provide the ammunition we need to bolster our arguments against or in favor of activities that affect the places we love.  The essays are thoroughly researched and supported with extensive bibliographies.  It might be helpful, but not essential, to have some fundamental background in avian studies to get the most from this book.  But, in addition to the bits noted above, this volume touches on such varied issues as the importance of birds to realtors, hantavirus, “bioturbation” [soil enhancement by disturbance] wetland preservation, climate change, and forest sustainability and regeneration [for both hardwood and tropical areas].  So, one can see the wide audience for the material presented.

Like us, the editors and writers are motivated by a strong desire for conservation.  They and we want to offer up new ideas and new information for all, and especially those who have influence in decisions concerning land, water, and air.  Aldo Leopold said, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: What good is it?”  We want to dispel that ignorance.