The most recent issue of Audubon Magazine posed the question “Why do birds matter?” The whole issue was devoted to answers to this question, provided by a diverse group of people ranging from author Jonathon Franzen to birding expert David Sibley, and plenty of folks in between. After reading the magazine, I spent a good deal of time thinking about how I would answer that question, and decided that ultimately, birds matter to me because of the connections they create – with people, with nature, and with myself.
If one “bird person” meets another, there will always be something to talk about. Both of my parents love birds, and when I call one of them to chat for a bit, our conversations often have a pattern: how are you, how’s the weather, what birds have you been seeing lately? They both live over 1000 miles away, but I can be pretty sure if I call my dad on a winter afternoon, he’ll be sitting in his easy chair watching birds at the feeder. My mom regularly calls or texts to ask for help identifying a bird she’s seen. And when holidays roll around, it’s a good bet that bird feeders or guide books will make it onto our gift lists for each other.
But you don’t have to know people to talk about birds with them. Whenever I find myself out walking a nature trail with a pair of binoculars, scouring trees or peering into undergrowth for birds, I inevitably come across someone else doing the same who’s eager to share their own spottings. And I’m always ready to do the same for others. While exploring a new nature preserve this past winter, I came across a couple of birdwatchers from Canada who were new to Florida’s birds. Over and over, as we walked the trail at our own pace, I would run into these two men and stop to tell them more about what they were seeing, and they would tell me about birds they see in Canada. I never saw them before, and I’m sure I never will again, but for a few hours that winter day, we were great friends. Birds do that – they create relationships where they might otherwise not exist.
I sometimes joke that birding is a “gateway drug” into caring about nature and the environment. Once you come to love birds, you start to learn about their habitats and how a healthy ecosystem is absolutely vital to their health. You find yourself designing a garden not just for pretty flowers, but for the birds and butterflies that visit it. You see a plastic bag floating in a lake and imagine a loon or duck becoming entangled. You watch a neighbor applying pesticides to their fruit trees and wonder if the birds could be harmed if they unwittingly eat the fruit. Before you know it, you’re giving up those plastic water bottles because they’re made from oil, and you can’t help but see those oil-covered pelicans from the Gulf oil spill a few years ago every time you take a sip. You never meant to become a “tree hugger” – but you realized that birds really need those trees, so you’d better make sure they’re around for a long time.
Birds drive us to think more deeply about the world we live in, and that we share with billions of creatures that need our help. They help us notice what’s going on around us, and how all creatures great and small might be affected. You make different life choices when you love birds. And it all starts when you notice that gorgeous little hummingbird visiting a flower on your porch, and you start to wonder what you need to do to make sure it keeps coming back.
What About You?
Have you ever given thought to why birds matter so much? I asked a few people in my life to answer that question, and most were surprised by it. “Why they matter?” one person asked. “You mean, like as part of the food chain or something?” Each person had a different answer, of course. For one, birds provided hope on dreary days. For another, birds were familiar friends from an entire lifetime of observation. For my dad, they’re inexpensive entertainment on a cold winter afternoon. For my young nephews, birds are important because “Aunt Jill likes them, so we do too.” It’s a start, and someday soon they’ll have their own unique answer.
So what about you? Will you share with us your own answer to the question “Why do birds matter?” Give us your thoughts in the comments below.