Are Birds of Any Consequence?

We all love birds. They are colourful, interesting creatures and they entice many people to a love of nature and then hopefully the conservation of biodiversity. Thus we do not want to get rid of them. A great deal of effort goes into censusing birds and they are often thought of as indicator species of ecosystem health. No one is in favour of ‘Silent Spring’. But let us do a thought experiment.

The question I wish to ask is somewhat different than the important issue of bird conservation: are birds of any consequence to the operational integrity of communities and ecosystems? In the simplest case what would happen, say, to the eastern deciduous forest or the tall grass prairie or the arctic tundra if all the birds in those ecosystems went extinct? Predators that specialize on birds would clearly disappear but I do not know how many bird specialist predators exist. At the same time the parasites of these birds would be gone. But what about the integrity of existing ecosystems?

Can we dismiss the oceans because birds have a negligible effect on oceanic food webs and energy flow? I do not know the answer to this. In forests birds are often thought to keep insect pests of trees under control, but this seems to be unlikely in many systems in which defoliating insects damage trees of many sorts. Perhaps insect outbreaks would increase in frequency if there were no birds. I come away with the image that birds are for the most part of little consequence for terrestrial ecosystems because they are consumers operating at a very low quantitative level. An exception might be tropical forests in which birds are essential pollinators and seed dispersers, but again I am not sure how often they are necessary pollinators or seed dispersers.

All of this speculation is pretty useless, one might argue, because birds are not going to disappear. They may well be reduced in abundance if habitat is lost and habitat loss seems to be a global problem. But there are two aspects of current ecological research that these idle speculations touch on. First, are birds very good model systems for conservation biology? The answer the ecological world seems to have decided is that they are and very much research must be done on birds for this reason. If research time and money is limited, more research on birds means less on other aspects of community and ecosystem dynamics. Should we be concerned about this? Bird research is convenient and sexy, at least in university settings, but is it more of “Nero fiddling while Rome is burning”? One might in fact argue that many birds are the worst possible model system for understanding conservation problems except for those specific to birds. When I was producing a textbook section on population dynamics I tried to find a good solid example of a supposed decline in bird abundance for any species in which the mechanisms of decline were understood. While there are many data on declines, and much hand wringing, there were virtually no examples with hard data on mechanisms except for the vague idea of habitat loss. Maybe mechanisms are unimportant in conservation biology but it seems unlikely that they are superfluous to understanding the larger issues of population dynamics.

The second general question is the converse one of what kinds of organisms should ecologists be concentrating on if we are to make convincing arguments about biodiversity conservation? If changes in community and ecosystem dynamics are looming, so that the future will not look like the past, where should we put our energies to prevent ecosystem collapse? Are insects and invertebrates in general of greater importance that birds or mammals?

Hurlbert (1971, 1997) raised the question of how to determine the general functional importance of a species to a community, and he concluded that the only measure that has been put forward is ‘the sum over all species, of the changes in productivity which would occur on removal of the particular species from the community’. He pointed out that this definition of importance is clear and specific but could never be measured for even a single species in a community for practical reasons. Hurlbert (1997) also recognized that ‘importance’ had now morphed into ‘keystone’ for much of ecology (e.g. Daily et al. 1993), with all the problems associated with the keystone idea. He suggested, as did Walker (1992) that most species are redundant and of little consequence to ecosystem functioning. Much discussion has occurred since these papers and some has morphed into discussions of ‘functional groups’ instead of species. But plant ecologists have in general not addressed the challenges that Hurlbert (1999) asked, and we are far from being able to answer even the hypothetical question in the title of this blog.

Daily, G.C., Ehrlich, P.R., and Haddad, N.M. 1993. Double keystone bird in a keystone species complex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 90(2): 592-594. doi:10.2307/2361101.

Hurlbert, S.H. 1971. The non-concept of species diversity: a critique and alternative parameters. Ecology 52: 577-586.

Hurlbert, S.H. 1997. Functional importance vs. keystoneness: Reformulating some questions in theoretical biocenology. Australian Journal of Ecology 22(4): 369-382.

Walker, B.H. 1992. Biodiversity and ecological redundancy. Conservation Biology 6: 18-23.

3 thoughts on “Are Birds of Any Consequence?

  1. tom

    EU/UK Farmland bird index, decline = loss of weeds
    UK Hen Harrier breeding population, decline = persecution
    Global predator birds, decline = DDT

    some ideas :0)

    Love the blog, been tweeted

  2. Richard

    You have dismissed the roles birds play as pollinators, insectivores, and prey. Would you also dismiss the importance of vultures as scavengers, raptors as predators, geese as grazers, and seabirds for nutrient cycling? And what are your thoughts on this paper?

    I’m sure this is all very tongue in cheek, but there are some hair-brained politicians out there looking for any reason to cut funding for scientific research.

    One point I do agree with you on is that we, as avian ecologists, have done a lousy job of understanding the mechanisms driving population declines. I’d guess that there are about 1 billion point counts done each year but only a handful of good demographic studies. Of course, some of the best studies on population dynamics have been done on birds, but most of these have been done on common species.

    Regarding your comment about predators, I can think of at least two genera of predators that prey almost exclusively on birds: Accipiter and Micraster. And both belong to the Class Aves!

    Anyhow, thanks for your posts/rants. They have all been thought provoking and highly entertaining, including this one.

  3. Andrew

    I was struck by this comment “Can we dismiss the oceans because birds have a negligible effect on oceanic food webs and energy flow?” While I am sure you are correct for open oceans far from land, seabirds seem to have pretty important ecological roles in coastal systems, and move surprisingly large quantities of materials around. For example:

    Polis, Gary A., and Stephen D. Hurd. “Linking marine and terrestrial food webs: allochthonous input from the ocean supports high secondary productivity on small islands and coastal land communities.” American naturalist (1996): 396-423.

    Young, Hillary S., Douglas J. McCauley, Robert B. Dunbar, and Rodolfo Dirzo. “Plants cause ecosystem nutrient depletion via the interruption of bird-derived spatial subsidies.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 5 (2010): 2072-2077.

    as to your core question “If research time and money is limited, more research on birds means less on other aspects of community and ecosystem dynamics. Should we be concerned about this?” I think it is fairly posed and don’t know the answer.


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