Challenging Landscape

Birds aren’t furry and cuddly, but in many respects, they’re more similar to us than other mammals are. They build intricate homes and raise families in them. Some take long winter vacations in warm places. Many have a complex language for communicating.

There is, however, one ability that humans have that birds do not. Birds cannot control their environment. They can’t protect wetlands. They can’t manage a fishery. They can’t air-condition their nests. They have only instincts to help them solve any problems they encounter.

In soaring flight, the Malayan crested serpent eagle holds its broad wings in a shallow “V” to give it speed.

These instincts have served birds well for a long time—150 million years longer than humans have been around. But now humans are changing the planet—its surface, its climate, its oceans. These changes are coming too quickly for many birds to adapt. The future of most bird species depends on our commitment to preserving them. Are they valuable enough for us to make the effort?

Most birds with eyes on the sides of their heads, like the Malayan crested serpent eagle, have a wide visual field. That’s useful in detecting prey and keeping a watch for predators. 

The bare-faced go-away-bird was given its funny name for its featherless face. But it’s the tall, feathered plume on the top of its head that attracts the most attention.

The Value of Birds

A bird’s value might depend on how we measure value. Sometimes we value something because it is useful. Certainly, many types of birds are valuable to us because we eat them. Some birds are valuable because they eat insects and rodents. Many birds perform vital roles—pollinating plants, spreading seeds, or serving as food for predators.

But one reason that wild birds matter— ought to matter—is that they are our last, best connection to the natural world. 

A few years ago, I was in a forest in northeast India. Suddenly, I heard and then began to feel in my chest, a deep rhythmic whooshing. It was the wingbeats of a pair of great hornbills.

The rainbow bunting’s bright colors impress potential mates.

The hornbills were flying to a tree with fruit. They had massive, yellow bills and hefty, white legs. They looked like a cross between a toucan and a giant panda. As they climbed around in the tree, I cried out with joy. My joy had nothing to do with what I wanted or what I possessed. It was the sheer presence of the great hornbill, which couldn’t have cared less about me.

Birds are always among us. Yet, their indifference to us ought to serve as a reminder that we’re not the measure of all things. Birds live squarely in the present. And at present, their world is still very much alive. In every corner of the globe, in nests as small as walnuts or as large as haystacks, chicks are pecking through their shells and into the light.