Help wanted: Why we need birds
What do birds do for us? Yes, they're wonderful to watch, special to spot, and fantastic to feed...but our birds aren't just easy on the eye. If you look out your window, you'll find that they're busy working away. It may not be the usual 9 - 5, but they carry out some important jobs that we'd be lost without. Come and discover the winged workforce helping our planet.
If you’re trying to look after your award-winning vegetables or you need some help keeping your borders tidy, we know just the right applicant to fill the job opening. Blue tits, woodpeckers, barn owls, it’s time to clock in. These birds are some of the best insect hunters out there.
Equipped with sticky spit that acts like glue, these birds can pick up pests while still on the wing - quicker than a drive-through. And there’s no half measures here. Blue tits may need to feed their chicks around 10,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest – so you can thank these guys for your next intact cabbage. And our summer visitor, the sedge warbler, stocks up on all sorts of British bugs, increasing their body weight from 10 to 18 grams in the two weeks before their winter trip back to Africa.
The diverse mix of birds in the UK means lots of bugs are on the menu. Song thrushes love to snack on snails, using hard stones to crack their shells and reach the tasty treasure within. While green woodpeckers love ants, which they catch with barbed tongues and chisel-like beaks, to keep your picnic safe for another day. When it comes to farmland, barn owls are perfect for rodent duty. These night-time hunters will rid your shed of any mice, shrews, and rats that are hiding away.
By protecting these natural pest controllers, we could save a lot of time and money. That’s because in 2020 alone, the UK treated 56,000,000 football pitches worth of land with pesticides. Sounds like hard work. And these toxic substances have some really nasty and avoidable effects on our wonderful wildlife.
Find out more about why we might need to rethink pesticides.
Earth’s greatest gardeners
Special delivery! Okay, so it might not arrive in pretty, brown packaging tied up with string, but this is a gift we should all be grateful for. Spoiler alert: it’s bird poo.
After eating a diverse array of seeds, our birds can travel for miles, overseas, through countries, and above different habitats. As they fly, their droppings act as tiny seed-grenades which disperse plants far and wide. Our fruit-loving species like thrushes and pigeons are top candidates for this role and may have even dropped the odd gift on your windshield!
This method of transport is perfect for the seeds, which need a little help getting to a location that suits them. They can arrive in areas with less competition, and better conditions. In fact, much of the plant life you see around you has been expertly sourced and sowed by our little winged postal workers. And, as climate change alters the places where plants and trees grow, birds help a huge variety of seeds to reach regions where they can continue to thrive – meaning we can reap their benefits.
Without seed dispersal from birds, we could wave goodbye to the rich volume of biodiversity across many important habitats. Find out more about biodiversity and why it's so important, here.
These birds maintain habitats, like forests, grasslands, and meadows, which are working to store carbon, purify the air, provide us with food, and keep the planet cool. Without seed dispersal from birds, we could wave goodbye to many important habitats.
When you think of a pollinator, you may think of bees, butterflies, and bugs. But birds have a part to play as well. Hummingbirds may be the most well-known, but globally, there are around 2,000 species of pollinating birds. In places where insects aren’t so abundant – like deserts or mountains – our feathered friends ensure that our wonderful plants are still pollinated.
If you want to see one of these wonderful pollinators on our doorstep, you may be lucky enough to spot a rare glimpse of an endangered golden oriole. These exotic birds flit about collecting nectar in Africa, but a small number pop over to the UK in May and June.
Unfortunately, our pollinators and other birds, are having a really difficult time. Around 200 species around the world are listed by IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as Critically Endangered, the highest class of extinction risk. Without our sweet-toothed friends, some of your favourite treats like bananas, papayas, and nutmeg would be off the menu – you can forget about those fruit salads.
This one goes out to our awesome vultures. Often cast in the villainous role (we’re looking at you, Lion King), these birds are actually a great addition to any workforce. In fact, in places like South Asia, they’re an essential part of the ecosystem.
When an animal dies, its body can fester and pick up all sorts of dangerous germs. Luckily, our clean-up crew aren’t about to let that happen. Tempted by the sweet, sweet, aroma of decaying flesh, vultures will swoop in within hours of an animal’s death and get the place spick and span. These birds aren’t slackers either - just one vulture can eat around 120kg of flesh in a year.
These birds are our first defence against disease. But sadly, in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, vultures are disappearing from the skies. As a living waste-disposal system, their decline is having some immediate and serious consequences. With no vultures to remove them, feral dog packs find the rotten carcasses and contract nasty diseases, like rabies.
Unfortunately, dog attacks on humans are on the rise, and the cost to Indian healthcare runs into the billions. But with your help, we’re doing our best to bring our clean-up crew back from the brink.
Nature is full of ingenious solutions to tricky issues. And many inventions were sparked by the weird and wonderful abilities of birds. For starters, the zip on your jeans was first modelled on the little hook-like structures on birds’ feathers. Better still, it was the peregrine falcon that helped to shape the design of today’s jet aeroplane. After studying the bird, aircraft engineers successfully solved the issue of engine failure at supersonic speeds, by imitating the falcon’s tube-like nostrils.
Not only can birds inspire design, but our birds act as an early warning system on the state of planet. Bird populations react intensely and quickly to any changes in environment, and because they’re so widespread, we can get a global gauge from them. Today, they’re doing their best to let us know we need to act on the climate and nature crisis. In fact, 70% of birds are on the Amber and Red Lists of Bird of Conservation Concern, meaning they’ve had severe declines in numbers or are seriously at risk.
This December, global leaders will come together to discuss the alarming decline of birds and other wildlife and how the world can act to stop this threat to nature.
Find out more about COP15, the global biodiversity conference, here.
While other birds are keeping our shrubbery in check, our seabirds are hard at work as well. From puffins, to gannets, to cormorants, our seabirds travel large distances into the sea in search of oily fish, sometimes hunting for months at a time. When they come back to shore, they leave nutrient-rich droppings at their nests. With thousands of birds in some colonies, there is plenty to go around.
This nutritious poo, known as guano, seeps back into close by water and helps marine vegetation to grow. Without this guano, marine habitats would struggle to develop, and so would the many animals that thrive on them. In this way, the seabirds are doing some vital maintenance for us, because places like kelp forests, seagrass beds, and living reefs capture and lock away carbon to help defend us against the climate crisis.
If we want to keep enjoying healthy oceans, we must protect our fantastic fertilisers.
You can find out about the threats our seabirds are facing, as well as some actionable steps you can take to help, here.
Our wonderful birds are quite the landscapers. You see, without them, the delicate balance of many special habitats would be thrown of kilter. That’s really important, because habitats like peatlands, forests, and grasslands have the incredible ability to help us in the climate crisis by storing carbon.
Birds do daily servicing tasks to keep habitats in-check and running smoothly. Birds like curlews slog away in wetlands catching snails which, left to their own devices, would munch their way through the unique vegetation and leave nothing but mud. In doing so, they’re helping to reduce flooding in nearby areas.
There are many reasons we need birds, but it’s clear that our hard-working friends need our help as well. Today, the biodiversity and climate crises are leaving our birds vulnerable to numerous threats and their decline will have some clear and noticeable impacts on our daily lives. Luckily, it's not too late to repay their long hours. Later this year, we’ll have a global opportunity to stand up for our winged workforce and plan for a future that works for us all, at COP15.