Last weekend at the National Audubon Convention it was very clear that birds mattered. In fact, among the 400+ convention attendees (Audubon members, staff, speakers from across the country), it was also very clear that bird conservation mattered a lot. In fact, after the multi-day convention, it seemed apparent that birds and bird conservation was the key--if not the key--to a fulfilling personal life, strong communities, sustainable agriculture, pure water, clean air, ecosystem resilience, and a healthy planet.
It seems foolish to disagree. Audubon has done a laudable job using the best available science to prove these statements are true and not hypotheses or slogans.
Expressing why exactly a particular bird, a population of birds, or a species of birds matter is a challenge--one greater than I had imagined.
These answers are all interesting, many of them compelling, but none really satisfying. This might be a good thing. It might mean that, ultimately, words are inadequate for describing our feelings about birds precisely because those feelings are beyond words. Yet, being a writer, I must try.
When I ask myself why birds matter, I narrow down the question to why my favorite bird--the marbled murrelet--matters to me.
Given the problems in the world, it is difficult to explain why this relatively little-known bird really matters to anyone on a practical level: This dove-sized seabird of the Pacific coast is not a source of food for humans, it is not a major source of food for another animal species, it does not (as far as I know) have symbiotic relationship with another animal or plan. It is not a keystone species in the ocean where it spends 95% of its time nor in the old-growth forest where it nests briefly in summer.
A marbled murrelet chick ready to fledge.
We may never get an answer to these questions as we struggle to articulate why birds matter.
The quick answer is that the marbled murrelet matters because it is an "indicator species"-- that is, its presence, abundance, or absence indicates the health of an ecosystems. Changes in its population signal changes in biological conditions of the entire marine and old-growth coastal forest ecosystems.
So the marbled murrelet is a useful tool? That seems unfair and disrespectful.
To be sure, the crashing murrelet populations (nearly 30% between 2001-2011) indicate that the old-growth forests and the marine waters where the murrelets forage are in serious trouble. Other birds with declining populations (which is most of them these days) also indicate fraying ecosystems. But this is not why these birds matter.
We cannot convincingly argue that, in the face of human suffering and misery, that birds are aesthetically pleasing and enhance the beauty of the natural world.
So birds are decorations for us to enjoy?
How about birds are important because they are part of the fabric of the planet's ecosystems? This is true, just as it is true that every thread in a sweater is part of that sweater. Just as is it true that no one knows just how many threads you can pull and remove before the sweater is no longer a sweater but a pile of threads that are not entwined, cannot reassemble themselves into any kind of functioning bit of clothing. When does the sweater become a rag? When does an ecosystem become a park, a clearcut, a zoo, and extirpation, a complete loss?
Here is why birds matter to me: they make me feel good.
Because they make me feel connected--to the bird itself, to its habitat, to the rest of the living planet. The dove-sized marbled murrelet connects me to the vast Pacific Ocean where it swims. It connects me to the small herring, salmon, squid it eats. It brings me the salty air and fog it flies through, the coastal bluffs it flies over, and open meadows it crosses. My ears ring with its plaintive call. The murrelet connects me to the cathedral-like forests of trees I will never climb. It connects me to the old-growth forest--its trees, mosses, lichen, ferns, owls, woodpeckers, martens, fishers, flying squirrels, voles, crows, and salamanders. These eight-ounce masterpieces of bone and feather connect me to the people I have met who love and study these birds, who work hard to protect them, who care about the forests and the oceans.
Feeling connected to them makes us feel good. (Just look how much we spend on staying connected to our fellow human beings through direct contact and conversations, post cards, phone calls, e-mails, text messages, blogs, posts, feeds, and tweets!)
We are social animals. We are social. We are animals. Feeling connected is important. Feeling connected helps us act wisely. It helps us do good work for the earth. It helps us take care of living things.
Please, pick a bird--any bird.
Read about it.