In 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, widely regarded as the most comprehensive and essential legislative protection of birds ever passed. The Act makes it illegal to hunt, take, pursue, kill, capture or sell any of the listed migratory birds, which currently includes more than 800 species. National Geographic, celebrating the centennial of this pivotal law, has named 2018 the “Year of the Bird.”
And yet, we might wonder why birds are so important. More specifically, why is regularly counting and recording their numbers worth our time? And why do birds merit protective legislation? Novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen, a notorious bird-enthusiast, wrote a piece in January to inaugurate National Geographic’s Year of the Bird, intending to answer this same question: Why do birds matter?
He writes about their diversity of appearance and behavior, claiming that “if you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world.” Franzen writes about their amazing capacity to build and to fly. But he notes that birds cannot protect their own environments; they cannot preserve themselves.
Franzen believes that birds matter simply because they are incredible. They are, he writes, “our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding. They’re the most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth as it was before people arrived.” This is certainly true. “The house finch outside your window,” Franzen notes, “is a tiny and beautifully adapted living dinosaur.”
Birds matter because birds are stunning. What more could we need? “In every corner of the globe, in nests as small as walnuts or as large as haystacks, chicks are pecking through their shells and into the light.” This image is beautiful, particularly when written in the prose of an acclaimed writer. So much beauty comes from a hatchling.
But even if we accept that birds are valuable, how are they to be protected? What can we do?
The Audubon Society notes that birds are most threatened by habitat loss. Eleven percent of the world’s current bird species are at risk. But careful bird counting can help combat this loss by providing important research and data to help resource managers make appropriate land management decisions. “Without data counts, calculated habitat preservation becomes much more difficult.”
So this is why we count – because birds are beautiful and cannot count themselves. Much of contemporary social and economic activity is carried out in search of profit. It cannot harm us to dedicate a fraction of that energy to the preservation of beauty, especially when such a task can be accomplished by simply standing amongst the trees and the sunlight, counting the birds.
Join us in sharing your sights, counts and pictures of the birds you see in River Legacy Park.
Written by Josh Ripple, summer intern at River Legacy Living Science Center and student at Stanford University.