With species in every continent, every type of habitat, and every climate on Earth, it is inevitable that birdlife will have made and continue to make a significant impact on the state of the planet.
But just how do birds help the environment? And what practical benefits does birdlife bring to the world? We’ll be taking a look at the direct impact birds have on the world around us, so please read on if you’d like to know more.
Birds make countless positive contributions to the environment in many different ways, from pollinating flowers, to controlling insect and rodent populations, encouraging diversity and dispersing plant seeds within landscapes, and fertilizing agricultural land.
Birds have varied diets and occupy a range of positions in food chains from apex predators (Golden eagles and California condors) to common targets for birds of prey (e.g. pigeons and quails). Thousands of ecosystems would collapse if birdlife went into decline, and related shockwaves would be felt by farmers and householders around the world.
Golden Eagles are apex predators, which essentially means they are at the top of the food chain
Unintentional benefits are also introduced by birds as they forage in, roam throughout and soar over different habitats. Believe it or not, bird droppings can bring huge positives to the environment. Carrying undigested seeds from fruit and berries the bird has eaten to different locations in the form of poop leads to the spread and continued survival of plant species.
While many contributions made by bird species around the globe are considered positive and beneficial to the planet, it is also only right to discuss ways in which birdlife may also be considered to have a negative effect. One such example is invasive species – birds that have been introduced into regions where they do not naturally occur – can cause extensive agricultural damage and disrupt local ecosystems.
Keep reading for more information about how birds shape, improve, and even clean the world we share with them.
In parts of Europe including the UK, Ring-necked Parakeets are classified as invasive
Some of the primary ways in which birds help maintain, add diversity to and improve the quality of the environment – as well as some less obvious eco-friendly contributions of birds - are as follows:
Bird droppings, also known as guano, serve as a valuable and highly sought-after natural fertilizer, and their positive effects can particularly be seen in coastal areas. Large colonies of fish-eating seabirds come inland to breed, forming vast colonies. And where there are vast colonies, there will naturally be vast deposits of bird droppings.
These droppings are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, due to the seabirds diet of fish from the oceans, and the effect on the quality of inland soils from the extra nutrients is clear to see, boosting the fertility of nearby grasslands which support grazing animals, such as muskox, reindeer and hares.
In the past, this guano was highly prized, with Arctic seabird colonies a prime location for sourcing tons of nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Annual deposits from one colony of little auks in Northwest Greenland are calculated at an estimated 3500 tons.
Seabirds like Puffins help the environment with their nitrogen and phosphorus rich droppings
Seed-eating birds play an unwitting role in ensuring the continuation of many plant species as they forage through woodlands and forests, eating berries and other fruit and plants. Undigested seeds are then pooped out in a different part of the forest floor, or further afield, where they stand a chance of taking root.
Spores of fungi are transferred in a similar way, meaning that plant and fungi reach areas that they would otherwise never have found their way to, ensuring survival and diversity of plant species and creation of landscapes that are rich in plant life and in turn can support numerous other species that depend on them for their own survival.
Birds are important pollinators of wildflowers, and transfer pollen grains between wildflowers so plant reproduction can take place. It’s not just nectar-eating birds, such as hummingbirds, that play this important role. Birds that feast on berries or brush against flowers also aid pollination by transferring pollen that has brushed off on their feathers, beaks and feet between flowers.
Nectar eating birds like Hummingbirds play a vital role in pollination
Maybe it’s not the first thing that springs to mind when you think about the contribution of birds to the world, but the role of avians in pest control is of huge significance.
Swallows can eat up to 60 insects in an hour, which has a huge collective impact when these insects could be causing mass damage to food crops that humans depend on. Research data states that birds eat around 400-500 million tons of bugs each year.
Barn owls that hunt near farmland are credited for reducing the populations of rodents such as rats and gophers that can decimate crops intended for human consumption. Birds act as natural pest control, eliminating the need for wider use of harmful pesticides, which is another plus point on the eco-friendly front.
Barn Swallows can eat up to sixty insects an hour
With around 10,000 species in the world, the impact birds have on the world’s ecosystems is undeniable, with birds of all sizes and native to a range of habitats play a major role in the food chains, both as prey and predators. Without birds, populations of various mammals, insects, reptiles and fish would be in danger of spiraling out of control.
The absence of birds would have an impact not only on the populations of other living creatures, but would carry a very real threat to humanity. Around 10 percent of the world’s crops are destroyed by pests, but without birds to keep these pest numbers under control, this percentage would likely rise to 80 to 90 percent, with the subsequent crop failings leading to mass famine and possibly starvation of humans.
Scavenging birds take on an unrivaled role as caretakers of the planet, cleaning up carrion and carcasses from the landscape that would otherwise rot and potentially cause disease in humans and animals in the area.
By feasting on every scrap of a dead animal, including bones, birds such as vultures do the environment a massive favor, and prevent leaching of harmful gasses from a decaying corpse into the soil and waterways.
Turkey Vulture feeding on a carcass
Flight allows birds to cover a much wider range than if they were only able to travel on foot. This means that they are key to the using, moving and recycling of valuable nutrients on a global scale.
Migration across long distances means that food eaten in one part of the world may be excreted in an entirely different location, and that any benefits of this “nutrient recycling” are not limited to a bird’s immediate environment but can spread much further afield.
Without flight, ecosystems would be dramatically altered, with hunting predators such as eagles and raptors being unable to retain their spots at the top of their food chains.
Birds that depend on flying insects for food would be unable to play their part in maintaining bug populations to a manageable level, and habitats would become far less diverse as birds would be limited as to where they claimed territories.
This would undoubtedly lead to issues over competition for nest sites, massive strain on food resources and inevitable threat to species’ survival.
American White Pelican in flight
One area in which birds are sometimes said to have a negative impact on the environment is related to landfill sites. Seagulls, especially, are a common presence at sites where household waste is disposed of, and the unmistakable cry of these large birds as they pick through the trash.
Often, they may carry garbage away from the sites, potentially dropping hazardous materials and causing health risks across wider and previously uncontaminated areas.
A large flock of seagulls at a landfill site
Birds themselves and their droppings are said to carry up to 60 transmissible diseases, some of which can be very serious when contracted by humans. Sites where many birds gather will naturally pose an increased risk, with a higher volume of fecal matter.
Although there are benefits of birds’ droppings on land, in terms of high nitrogen content making it a suitable fertilizer for agricultural purposes, over water it is a slightly different matter.
Large volumes of bird poop being discarded in the sea or over lakes brings a danger of the water being contaminated with higher than average levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.
These elements cause rapid growth of algae, which in turn can lead to the water’s oxygen levels dropping in a process known as eutrophication. This can kill any fish in the water, and also mean the water cannot be treated to make it safe as drinking water.
Some birds are classed as invasive species, which by nature pose a threat to local ecosystems. Issues that may arise with the presence of a rapidly growing population of non-native birds include a disruption to the area’s natural prey-predator balance, extensive damage to agricultural crops and land, and increased competition for food and nest sites.
Canada geese are one of the most famous invasive species in the United States.
A flock of Canadian Geese
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