Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

February 2017

Vol. 45, No. 1

About Books: What's a Wren Worth?

Mark Lynch

Why Birds Matter: Avian Ecological Function and Ecosystem Services. Edited by Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Daniel G. Wenny, and Christopher J. Whelan. 2016. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

How much do you spend on birds on a weekend? Over the course of a year? Factor in the cost of gas, food, and your time, as well as the cost of field guides, binoculars, scopes, and items like classes and out of state trips. If you sit down and actually attempt this seriously, the dollar total may surprise you. But beyond the obvious cost of birding, what is the experience of looking at birds worth to you? “Priceless” is not an acceptable answer. Try and actually put a figure on it. What dollar amount would you accept in exchange for a weekend trip to Plum Island in September or Quabbin Park in May? These are not frivolous questions. This simple exercise gets to the heart of the meaning of one small and simple aspect of the term “ecosystem services.” The new book ultimately asks what are birds worth to humans and to the environment.

Why Birds Matter is a scholarly collection of papers collected by the three editors/authors. Çağan H. Şekercioğlu is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah. Daniel G. Wenny is a landbird senior biologist at the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. Christopher J. Whelan is visiting research associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and research affiliate at the Field Museum, Chicago. Besides editing this book, each has contributed one or more papers to the collection. The question this book asks is a somewhat controversial one: “how do birds add value to human economies and how can we measure this from the perspective of ecosystem services?” (p. ix) It requires looking at birds from an anthropocentric perspective: how do birds benefit us? This view is controversial because some scientists and natural historians believe it “prioritizes the instrumental value to the human being.” (p. 29)

A root critique of the monetary valuation of birds rests on the alleged dependence of intrinsic and instrumental value. For example, Weidensaul (p. 40) stated that valuation of services provided by birds “inevitably cheapens the very thing we’re trying to protect.” (“Why Birds Matter Economically” by Johnson et al. p. 25–48)

Certainly, using economic language to discuss birds can seem jarring to anyone who deeply enjoys nature. There are also serious ethical issues about how to assign value. In such schemes it is appropriate to ask questions such as, will charismatic or tastier birds be considered worth more than other less attractive birds? The authors of these papers are looking at a bird’s worth more in an ecological sense, but as one author notes:

To advance the conservation of birds, should we appeal to people’s hearts, minds or wallets? All three. Our view is that the recognition that birds matter economically is a powerful tool for conservation and for improving human life. But it is just a tool—one that should be used not as a single decision-making criteria, but alongside recognition of the non-economic value dimensions of nature. (p. 41)

But earlier in that same paper, the authors offer this analogy:

Consider your plumber: recognizing the undeniably useful and valuable service a plumber provides in no way cheapens his or her intrinsic value as a human. Indeed, intrinsic human value and rights remain inviolate regardless of professional skill, as a plumber or otherwise. Meanwhile, failing to value a good plumbers services is foolish. Those of us who have a deep and abiding value for humans consider it ludicrous and immoral to base someone’s intrinsic value conditionally on a practical one; those of us who make careful economic decisions consider it imprudent to ignore instrumental value. And so it should be for birds. (p. 30 “Why Birds Matter Economically” by Johnson et al.)


“Warblers feeding on young caterpillars of the gipsy moth” from Forbush (1905).

This analogy is worrisome because the concept of what constitutes “intrinsic human value” varies tremendously from country to country, culture to culture, and even within the United States. Just consider how different cultures value gays, women, minorities, different religions, or dissidents. Never mind birds. Furthermore, let’s be honest, my relationship with a plumber is utilitarian, and rarely, if ever, do I consider his or her “value” if she or he does a poor job or charges too much. I just move on to another plumber. Looking at birds the way we look at plumbers appears to be exactly what Weidensaul alluded to in the quote above: we are cheapening the very thing we are trying to preserve. Fortunately, the rest of the papers in Why Birds Matter stick to hard science.

The idea of looking at the economic value of birds is an old one. During the last half of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century, the serious study of “economic ornithology” began when the United States Congress appropriated $5000 to the United States Department of Agriculture to establish a section of Economic Ornithology under the direction of Dr. C. Hart Merriam. Studies were done, bulletins and annual reports published. Useful Birds and Their Protection, the 1905 classic by Edward Howe Forbush, is a good example of the economic ornithology literature of the time. Many older birders in Massachusetts are familiar with this chatty magenta-bound tome, and it is found in many home birding libraries. Most of these studies done during this effort are considered flawed and short-sighted in their methodology and assessment. For example: a bird was declared “beneficial” if it was found to eat an insect pest occasionally. But that does not mean that that bird was actually an effective or important control of that pest most of the time. A roster of species was considered “detrimental,” and it was recommended that these species be eliminated or reduced in numbers. These species included House Sparrows, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and American Crows. The researchers obviously had narrow and flawed criteria for what constitutes a beneficial or detrimental species. Soon, the government-funded study of economic ornithology ended, and most of the research in that field stopped.

In 2001, the United Nations began the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, abbreviated MA. Here is a description of its mission from its website:

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was called for by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000. Initiated in 2001, the objective of the MA was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. The MA has involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. Their findings, contained in five technical volumes and six synthesis reports, provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide (such as clean water, food, forest products, flood control, and natural resources) and the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems.

A brief summation of their findings is also found on their website:

The bottom line of the MA findings is that human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. At the same time, the assessment shows that with appropriate actions it is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently underway.

One of the ideas that came out of the MA was that “ecosystem services” was a way of defining the vital importance of the environment to government bodies in ways that everyone could understand. In Why Birds Matter, the authors list four classes of these ecosystem services:

  • Provisioning Services, such as food, water, timber and fiber
  • Regulating Services that affect climate, floods, disease, waste, and water quality
  • Cultural Services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits
  • Supporting Services such as soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling (p. 3)

    Birding, of course, comes under class #3.

    The papers in Why Birds Matter scientifically evaluate the important roles birds play in various ecosystem services. Papers include fascinating topics like “Pollination by Birds: A Functional Analysis” by Anderson et al. (p. 71–106), “Seed Dispersal by Fruit-Eating Birds” by Daniel G. Wenny et al. (p. 105–46), “Dispersal of Plants by Waterbirds” by Green et al. (p. 147–95), and “Ecosystem Services Provided by Avian Scavengers” by DeVault et al. (p.235–70). After reading these papers, you will begin to understand the critical part birds play in keeping the planet’s ecosystems functioning.

    One of the most important and interesting papers is the last one: “Why Birds Matter: Bird Ecosystem Services that Promote Biodiversity and Support Human Well-being,” by Çağan H. Şekercioğlu et al. (p. 341–64). The authors address the idea of “bird ecosystem disservices.” You hear and read a lot about certain bird species like pigeons and starlings being pests, but how serious a problem are they? The authors write that there is often a big difference between the perceived and the real extent of damage caused by certain species. The super abundant Red-billed Quelea is considered a serious crop pest in Africa, but when one begins to evaluate the actual damage done by these birds across the continent, it is far less than perceived. In some cases, schemes to control certain “pest” bird species may be more harmful than the damage they cause. Birds certainly do cause problems like drilling holes in utility poles and striking aircraft, but the authors note that there is a role humans play too by creating unique habitats, like at airports, that are attractive to those species of birds. The authors end the paper by addressing the real issue of what it will cost to preserve avian diversity and therefore our well-being.

    The financial costs of conservation appear great, perhaps even insurmountable. But even at the estimate of $80 billion annually, those costs are small compared to the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services. As stated by McCathy et al. (2012): “More prosaically, the total required is less than 20% of annual global consumer spending on soft drinks.” Clearly, the capital to fund conservation exists. It is up to those of us who value birds, and the rest of nature, to urge governments and citizens of the world to find the will. (p. 357)

    Why Birds Matter is an important introduction to the concept of “ecosystem services” and will give the birder a deeper appreciation of how birds keep the planet’s ecosystems functioning.

    BRIEFLY NOTED BUT HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

    Massachusetts birders of a certain age (read: “old”) will remember Nick and Ollie Komar, avid young birders who quickly made an impression on the birding community for their enthusiasm as well as their careful field skills. Oliver Komar is now an ornithologist and professor of natural resources management at Zamorano University in Honduras. Together with Jesse Fagan, a professional guide for Field Guides Inc., he has written a dynamite new guide. The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America is a thick, but still “pocket sized” guide to the birds of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Though many birders visit Belize, few visit the other countries covered in this guide. That’s too bad as there are at least 40 species endemic to this region as well a stellar array of other Central American species.

    The book has introductory chapters on the topography and ecosystems of the area with special emphasis given to endemics. The illustrations by Robert Dean and Peter Burke are top notch and include a number of vignettes showing species in their favored habitats. Range maps are small but clearly drawn and up to date. Species accounts are to the point with solid information on how common a species is, where it is found, and the quality of its vocalizations. The book is, in other words, a classic field guide. Congratulations to everyone involved. It is hoped that the production of this guide will encourage more birders to sample the avian pleasures of this fascinating region.

    If you would like to listen to my interviews with the authors, they are podcast on the WICN (90.5 FM) website under “Inquiry”: www.wicn.orgwww.wicn.org

  • My interview with Daniel G. Wenny and Christopher J. Whelan: http://www.wicn.org/podcasts/audio/daniel-g-wenny-and-christopher-whelan-why-birds-matter
  • My interview with Oliver Komar: http://www.wicn.org/podcasts/audio/oliver-komar-peterson-field-guide-birds-northern-central-america

Literature Cited

  • Fagan, Jesse and Oliver Komar. 2016. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America. Boston, Massachusetts, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Forbush, Edward Howe. 1905. Useful Birds and Their Protection. Boston, Massachusetts, Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture.

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