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Why Birds Matter

Loon and chick on Upper St. Regis Lake. Photograph by Larry Master

The March/April issue of Audubon magazine is dedicated entirely to the question: Why do birds matter?

One reason is that they serve as sentinels of environmental problems that affect other organisms, including us. Audubon cites an Adirondack bird to illustrate how a single species can influence national policy: “Scientists have been monitoring the health of common loons in New York’s Adirondack Park to understand the impact of atmospheric mercury from coal-burning power plants and incinerators. A 2012 report by the Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) calls the birds ‘excellent sentinels of threats impacting aquatic ecosystems. They live more than 20 years, are at the top of the food web, and are very territorial.’ By measuring the loons’ breeding success and correlating it to mercury contamination, the BRI has been able to provide ‘evidence for the need to stringently regulate mercury and acidic emissions on national and global scales.’”

Audubon offers dozens of other reasons why birds matter, many of them tied to economic impact. Mainstream conservation strategy today is to quantify ecosystem services—to put a dollar value on water filtration provided by a forest, or on the number of shade-grown-coffee-killing insects eaten by black-throated blue warblers, or on how much tourists will pay to see a Bicknell’s thrush atop an Adirondack mountain.

David Sibley has a more personal take on the question: “Birds make any place a chance for discovery, they make a garden seem wild, they are a little bit of wilderness coming into a city park, and for a bird watcher every walk is filled with anticipation. What feathered jewel might drop out of the sky next?”

But my favorite answer belongs to Scott Weidensaul: “Birds do not need to justify their existence to us. . . . They matter because they matter. Every damn one of them.”

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