The numbers of some bird species in North America are in steep decline, in part due to human activities. For some people this is of little concern, birds are not of interest to them. But for many humans, birds are an important part of their lives. Economists would say that many people value birds. By understanding some of these values we can think about what birds are for.
For some, birds are something to be consumed, either for the meat game birds provide or for the enjoyment from bird hunting. Bird hunting is a significant part of Maine’s outdoor economy. In a like manner, others of us enjoy eating domesticated bird species – chicken, turkey, duck. Without the wild species these domesticates came from, we would not be eating those birds today.
Others enjoy birds directly, but without “consuming” the bird (in technical terms economists would call birds in this circumstance public goods). For serious birders, finding and identifying birds by sight or sound is a central part of their personal identities and birding becomes more than a hobby, it becomes a passion. There is a life list to build. Other bird watchers may not keep a life list or drive through the night for hours to see a species they have never seen. But they too get great personal satisfaction from watching birds in their native habitats.
Other people may not be birders or bird watchers, but they think they may want to become more involved in the future, perhaps in retirement. For them, an abundance of birds represents an option for future enjoyment, so they still value birds. Similarly, those who don’t hunt, eat, or watch birds themselves, recognize that these activities might well be valuable to other people, particularly future generations. For these people there is value in knowing that they leave a world where future bird enthusiasts will not be deprived of a wonderful source of satisfaction. Being able to leave birds as a bequest has value.
Birds provide us what are called “ecosystem services,” in the jargon of today. For example, birds eat insect pests that damage agricultural or forest products that would otherwise need chemical protection. Birds also disperse many of the seeds that give us wild flowers to enjoy. Birds are also important to ecologists who sometimes use lessons derived from the study of birds to understand other ecosystems of which birds are not a central part. We could think of this as the scientific value of birds.
Some people still see birds as important for religious or spiritual reasons. Birds might be part of a belief system rooted in nature, what anthropologists call animism. Believers in a Creator (Christians and Muslims for example) see birds as part of the Creation that they are called to steward. The famous historian Lynn White argued in the magazine Science that St. Francis of Assisi should be the patron saint of ecologists for his commitment to this very ethic. Still others may find birds valuable simply because they exist, whether or not these individuals want to eat, watch, study, worship, or bequest birds to the future.
So birds are for many things and the decline of birds of all types is a cause for regret to many people. In economic terms we would say that the loss of birds is a loss in human values of several types. Since much of the decline in bird populations is attributable to human behaviors – wind turbines, skyscrapers, house cats, communication towers, rat poisons – these losses impose costs on people who may or may not enjoy the benefits created by these destructive activities. The loss of birds is a loss of human value.
So what are birds for? Maybe the best answer is, they are for the birds. Every late summer a flock of juvenile blue jays careens through our yard, calling raucously to one another. Every early spring the white throated sparrows sing their crystalline song. In the winter, the barred owl swoops in to perch on a bare branch and wait for the unwary squirrel to pass below and provide a meal. The mid-summer evening is haunted by the ethereal songs of the hermit thrush and the veery. These and many more such events make me think birds enjoy the life of birds. They do not need humans to appreciate them to be valuable. Their lives are valuable in and of themselves, without reference to us.