Do you eat birds?
If you've eaten a turkey or a chicken nugget, then you've eaten a bird! Providing a food source is just one way that birds are important to humans. In the United States, more than 230 million turkeys are consumed each year, with almost 50 million of those turkeys being eaten at Thanksgiving.
Importance of Birds
You are probably familiar with birds as food. People have always hunted birds for food. People eventually discovered that certain wild fowl (ducks, chickens, turkeys) could be tamed. This discovery led to the development of poultry, which is domesticated fowl that farmers raise for meat and eggs. Chickens are probably the oldest kinds of poultry. Chickens were domesticated in Asia at least 3,000 years ago. Since then, farmers have developed other poultry, including ducks, geese, guineafowl, pheasants, and turkeys. Around the world, people consume all these birds, and even more exotic birds, like ostriches. Today, chickens rank as the most widely raised poultry by far. Farmers throughout the world produce hundreds of millions of chickens annually for meat and eggs. Ducks and turkeys rank second and third in production worldwide. Ducks are raised for both meat and eggs. Turkeys are raised mainly for meat.
Can you think of other ways that birds are important?
Birds and Humans
- In agriculture, humans harvest bird droppings for use as fertilizer. These droppings have a high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, three nutrients essential for plant growth.
- Chickens are also used as an early warning system of human diseases, such as West Nile virus. Mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus, bite young chickens and other birds, and infect them with the virus. When chickens or other birds become infected, humans may also become infected in the near future.
- Birds have important cultural relationships with humans. Birds are common pets in the Western world. Common bird pets include canaries, parrots, finches, and parakeets. Sometimes, people act cooperatively with birds. For example, the Borana people in Africa use birds to guide them to honey that they use in food.
- Birds also play prominent and diverse roles in folklore, religion, and popular culture. They have been featured in art since prehistoric times, when they appeared in early cave paintings. Many young child know of Big Bird, a very large canary of Sesame Street fame.
- Feathers are also used all over the world to stuff pillows, mattresses, sleeping bags, coats, and quilting. Goose feathers are preferred because they are soft. Manufacturers often mix goose feathers with down feathers to provide extra softness.
Birds and the Ecosystem
Birds are obviously important members of many ecosystems. They are integral parts of food chains and food webs. In a woodland ecosystem for example, some birds get their food mainly from plants. Others chiefly eat small animals, such as insects or earthworms. Birds and bird eggs, in turn, serve as food for such animals as foxes, raccoons, and snakes. The feeding relationships among all the animals in an ecosystem help prevent any one species from becoming too numerous. Birds play a vital role in keeping this balance of nature. In addition to being important parts of food webs, birds play other roles within ecosystems.
- Birds eat insects. They are a natural way to control pests in gardens, on farms, and other places. A group of birds gliding through the air can easily eat hundreds of insects each day. Insect eating birds include warblers, bluebirds and woodpeckers.
- Nectar-feeding birds are important pollinators, meaning they move the pollen from flower to flower to help fertilize the sex cells and create new plants. Hummingbirds, sunbirds, and the honey-eaters are common pollinators.
- Many fruit-eating birds help disperse seeds. After eating fruit, they carry the seeds in their intestines and deposit them in new places. Fruit-eating birds include mockingbirds, orioles, finches and robins.
- Birds are often important to island ecology. In New Zealand, the kereru and kokako are important browsers, or animals that eat or nibble on leaves, tender young shoots, or other vegetation (Figure below). Seabirds add nutrients to soil and to water with their production of guano, their dung.
The kereru (left) and the kokako (right) are important browser species in New Zealand
pollinator: Animal that transfers pollen from one flower to another.
guano: Feces and urine of seabirds, cave-dwelling bats, and seals.
- Birds are important to humans in many ways; they are a source of food and fertilizer.
- Birds are important to the ecosystem in many ways; they pollinate flowers and disperse seeds.
Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.
- Why are seeds enclosed in a tasty pulp?
- Give two examples of how animals disperse seeds.
- How do plants disperse their seeds differently from animals? What advantage would these plants have if their were no animals? When do these plants appear in the fossil record?
- How many seabirds were there at the 19th century peak of guano collection? How many are there now? What direction is the population going?
- How has the Peruvian government changed the way guano is collected?
- For what are people using guano?
- How does climate affect the quality of bird guano? Why is this quality important to the use of guano as fertilizer?
- What are two ways birds are important to humans?
- What are two ways birds are important to the ecosystem?