Book Review: Why Birds Matter
Avian Ecological Function and Ecosystem Services
edited by Cagan H. Sekercioglu, Daniel G. Wenny
& Christopher J. Whelan
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Grievous as it would no doubt be to Keats and Wordsworth and that crowd to quantify a quail, to measure a meadowlark, to summarize a starling with statistics, such fascinating and macabre things can be done and happen on every page of a new book from the University of Chicago Press, Why Birds Matter: Avian Ecological Function and Ecosystem Services. The endeavor is fascinating because birds of almost all kinds have far more impacts on human life than most humans realize, and it’s macabre because the glimpse of the future it provides – a future in which the worth of an animal is determined by a mathematical assessment of the benefits it provides to humans – is terrifyingly disheartening.
In his Foreword, Jeffrey Gordon (the president of the American Birding Association) does his best to soften that intimidation by allowing for all the unseen, unquantifiable elements that Keats and Wordsworth would have babbled on about:
A single flock of snow geese might, over the year, provide various people with food, clothing, recreation, an aesthetic thrill, and a deep, even spiritual sense of connection to the passing of seasons and time. That same flock might also provide a level of ecosystem disservice, perhaps overgrazing certain habitat areas. But apart from all these human-assigned, instrumental values, there is the intrinsic value of the geese themselves: sentient, social beings amazingly adapted to some truly challenging conditions. This book is large enough in scope and wide enough in outlook to embrace all these things.
It would be pleasant to think so, but although the book is large enough and the scope is wide enough to embrace intrinsic avian values, Gordon’s Foreword is the last we hear of such hifalutin things. The entire rest of the book – twelve stand-alone chapters on things like seed dispersal in fruit-eating birds, dispersal of plants by waterbirds, avian scavenger ecosystem support, nutrient dynamics in migrating birds, bird pollination mechanics – barely so much as glances at the fact that birds are beautiful, clever, or endlessly fascinating to watch. Instead, we get paragraph after paragraph like this one:
Populations of obligate scavengers have significantly declined over the last several decades across the globe, mainly due to a suite of anthropogenic factors. Scavengers are the most threatened avian functional group and 61% of the obligate avian scavengers of the world are currently threatened with extinction. Many of these species have therefore become high priorities for conservation.
This is, admittedly, forbidding stuff, and there’s no sugar-coating the fact that Why Birds Matter purloins, corvid-style, its intriguing all-purpose title from some happy, accessible book at the shallow end of the natural history pool. But the sad fact is that sooner rather than later, the kind of strictly cost-benefit metrics on display everywhere in this book is going to determine the life or death of every non-human animal species on Earth. As is so often the case, birds will function as the early bellwethers of how those calculations will be made in a hotter, emptier, much more desperate world.