My brothers and I spent a lot of time outside when we were growing up, and for us – as for many others – early May meant our chance to see some of the hundreds of millions of birds migrating north. They journey for many miles over land and water throughout North America. During their travels, they may stop in our National Wildlife Refuges, city parks, and urban and rural backyards, as well as other habitats. So no matter where you are, you have a chance to see migrating birds.
This spring we celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. The most important and spectacular event in the life of a migratory bird – its annual voyage between its summer and winter homes – is celebrated in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central America through bird festivals, bird walks and education programs. While typically celebrated on the second Saturday of May, celebrating birds is not just a day. Birds can be celebrated 365 days a year.
This year’s theme for International Migratory Bird Day – The Benefits of Birds to Humans and Nature – shares the many ways in which birds matter to the earth, to ecosystems and, of course, to us.
Birds are important indicators of change. The precipitous decline in peregrine falcon, brown pelican and bald eagle populations in the mid-1900s was an indicator of how dangerous DDT was to wildlife, and potentially to humans. By the mid-1960s, the peregrine and bald eagle had been virtually eliminated from nearly all of the eastern United States; brown pelican numbers were also decimated. Peregrine falcons and brown pelicans were declared endangered in 1970; bald eagles even earlier, in 1967. But with hard work, all three species made a dramatic recovery, enabling us to remove them from the Endangered List.
Some bird species provide practical solutions to problems, such as the need for insect and rodent control. The yellow warbler, usually found in brushy areas near water, sings its beautiful song: "Sweet sweet sweet, I'm so sweet." More than that, though, yellow warblers are excellent controllers of insects, both on their breeding grounds across North America and in their winter habitat through Mexico, and Central and South America.
Others birds disperse seeds and help to re-vegetate disturbed areas. Some birds, such as hummingbirds, are pollinators, ensuring that we are graced with flowering plants, trees, shrubs and a number of crops.
And beyond the utilitarian, birds are inspirations for the arts, from ballet (think Swan Lake), to classical music (The Lark Ascending), poetry (Poe’s The Raven, Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale), popular music (The Eagles, The Beatles’ Blackbird) and painting (from Picasso to Audubon). We even name a good many sports teams and commercial products after them.
International Migratory Bird Day events are one of the most successful vehicles for public education on migratory birds. Across the Americas, International Migratory Bird Day events are providing great ways for people to get involved with the conservation of birds.
Public awareness and concern are crucial components of migratory bird conservation. Citizens who are enthusiastic about birds, informed about threats, and empowered to become involved in addressing those threats, can make a tremendous contribution to maintaining healthy bird populations and thus healthy environments for us all.
My brothers and I knew how amazing the migrations were; now I know how vital they are. So this year let’s celebrate International Migratory Bird Day 2014 and Why Birds Matter!