Give thanks for the grace, beauty and hard work of birds

As I carved the turkey this year, I was thankful for birds.

For me, birds provide intrigue and stress release as I watch them from the kitchen window. Why is that big flock of red-winged blackbirds here today but not yesterday? Who would win a contest over a sunflower seed, eastern towhee or brown thrasher? Are those three male cardinals feeding peaceably together under my feeder actually friends or enemies?

And the intricate feather patterns birds have evolved to hide from predators or impress mates never cease to send chills down my spine. Look again at the striking pattern of black and white on a downy woodpecker’s wings, the explosive blue back of a male eastern bluebird, or the comical absurdity of a vulture’s face, and be thankful that these remarkable species have adapted well to human-dominated landscapes.

Others are also thankful.

More than 40 million Americans spend time observing, feeding or photographing birds because of their beauty and grace. This is approximately the same number of people that go fishing each year, and almost four times as many people as go hunting. And my friends who fish and hunt are thankful for the birds too, as they frequently tell me about the osprey and herons and nuthatches they enjoyed while waiting for that deer or bass that never showed up.

As a society, we should better appreciate the free ecological services provided by birds. Hummingbirds pollinate flowers. Flycatchers and thrushes eat costly pests, whether mosquitoes around your home or caterpillars in the apple orchard. Wrens remove the spiders from windowsills. Jays bury acorns and pine nuts and in so doing greatly accelerate reforestation.

Less obvious is the role that birds play in cycling nutrients through the food web, whether moving nitrogen from water to the land in the form of guano, or quickly returning the carbon from a rotting deer carcass back into the food web.

While it is tough to put a specific dollar value on these services, it is a very, very large number, because there are billions of birds. We should be more thankful.

In John Keats’ famous poem about death, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” he ends the first stanza with the dreadfully depressing line “And no birds sing.” I am thankful that despite all we have done to injure this planet, billions of birds still sing.

Dan Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit williamsburgbirdclub.org.

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