Watching, feeding and photographing birds are among the most popular pastimes in America.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 50 million U.S. adults buy a million tons of bird seed every year. Bird watching pumps billions of dollars into local businesses. Based on Fish and Wildlife Service surveys, bird watching as a business generates about $107 billion in annual revenue.
As our most visible wildlife neighbors, birds appeal to people for a variety reasons. They come in beautiful and often breathtaking colors. Their joyous spring songs, spectacular migrations, and behavior fascinate and delight observers. Identifying them challenges the imagination and the desire to learn more about nature. Birds have inspired poets and storytellers for thousands of years — and who hasn’t envied their freedom of the skies?
People were fascinated with birds long before recorded history. The evidence can be found in crude drawings on the walls of Stone Age caves. Ancient cultures have left remarkable examples of art work and carvings depicting birds. The hieroglyphic writings of ancient Egyptians employed many bird characters, which are preserved on monuments and temples (the sacred ibis has been nearly exterminated in lands where it was once worshipped). Birds figured importantly in the art and myths of the Mayas; and the Aztecs once imposed the death penalty for killing a quetzal because its feathers were so prized by royalty. Today, the quetzal is threatened with extinction by poachers who snare the birds for zoos and collectors.
There are numerous Biblical references to birds. One passage (Numbers 11:31) relates, “And a wind went forth from the Lord and brought quails from the sea, … so that they covered the ground to a height of two cubits.” In Job 39:26, “Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom and stretch her wings toward the south?” In another famous passage (Jeremiah 8:7), “The stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time and the turtle [dove] and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”
Aristotle conducted anatomical studies of birds 300 years before the Christian era and devised a simple classification for 170 kinds of birds.
During the early Christian era, ornithology — like all sciences except medicine — suffered a relapse because scientific pursuits were considered antireligious and sometimes resulted in persecution. Further progress had to await the 12th Century Renaissance, when the study of nature blossomed throughout Europe.
Although Native Americans made extensive use of birds for food, clothing and ornaments, the first published reference to birds in America pertains to Columbus. With his crew starving and on the verge of rebellion, he sighted birds out at sea and followed them to land. If he hadn’t changed course to follow these birds, it would have changed American history.
The increasing demands of an ever-expanding human population and the pervasive use of pesticides have caused dramatic declines in songbirds around the globe. Species that have survived for millions of year may soon reach the end of the line because of human activity and habitat loss.
— Gene Bullock is newsletter editor of the Kitsap Audubon Society. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. One of his sources for this column is “An Introduction to Ornithology” by George Wallace and Harold Mahan.