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Birdbrains pour billions into economy
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Farmers whose crops are plagued with gopher problems can recruit the help of owls for the burrowing creatures eradication, according to a story that was published in Ag Alert, a magazine for California farmers. This barn owl was spotted in a palm tree surrounded by almond orchards in rural south Manteca. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Have you thanked a bird today?

Yes, a bird. As in the feather-weight pinioned creature whose name some people even borrow or invoke to send out an insult to someone they deem mentally challenged.

But next time you are tempted to do just that, think about this. There is apparently plenty of proof that many of our feathered friends are, well, no birdbrains. Consider these eco-financial proofs, for instance:

*They are among farmers’ best friends, if not business partners.

*They help prevent soil erosion and, in the process, protect our drinking water.

*The furniture industry can thank the birds for the continued availability of timber materials that they need to remain in business.

*Some scientists rely on birds in gathering critical environmental data.

How these feathered friends benefit humans not just in the form of “ecosystem services,” the collective term that encompasses all the ways birds benefit the environment and improve human life, is discussed in-depth in the cover story of the March-April 2013 issue of the Audubon magazine. I received a recycled copy of it last week from a kind-hearted individual in the community who subscribes to this avian publication and who, of course, loves these wonderful winged creatures.

“They can’t be valued by dollars and cents alone. Birds matter because they do – each and every one of them,” reads the introduction to the article, “Wonder Beyond Measure” written by Scott Weidensaul.

The thought-proving and eye-opening article does try in fascinating detail to quantify and illustrate in dollars and cents how much we, human beings, owe to these so-called birdbrains. There are plenty of anecdotes in modern history detailing how birds, as pest control, helped saved potato crops, fruit crops and cranberry bogs by pest infestation. The magazine story covers some of these.

Birds as capable cleanup crews are being demonstrated in India where vultures take on the task of being a massive clean-up crew. Hinduism bans the slaughter and consumption of cows in this country. So when the animals die a natural death, the scavenging birds swoop down on the animals’ carcasses and clean them to the bone thus preventing diseases to spread. Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society, is quoted in the story as saying, “We don’t have an organized carcass-disposal system. After skinning, vultures would come, and within half an hour they would finish everything that is perishable from a carcass. Then we have people who collect the bones, so there will be no mess around and no stench.”

Birds are also being deemed as helpers for rice farmers in California to get rid of rice straw, a waste product of the industry. The rice farmers could burn the straw, which would be the cheapest way, but that process could cause pollution; hence, would be illegal. Tilling the straw into the soil is an alternative but quite expensive. Enter the wintering waterfowl like mallards that travel along the Pacific Flyway which could help decompose the straw by foraging in the flooded rice fields for food that they need to fuel their continued journey. A 2000 study by the University of California at Davis suggested that “farmers would be well advised… to flood their fields and create wetlands for these avian wayfarers.”

Closer to home, cedar waxwings for the last three years or so have taken over the task of cleaning overripe fruit off my persimmon tree every winter, so there’s less mess on the ground to worry about.

Does being beautiful alone matter? It does if you’re talking about bird beauty being the driving force behind a multibillion-dollar business. Yes, billions, not mere millions. By simply being beautiful, birds stimulate economies, according to the Audubon article which cited, as an example, what is happening at the 2,000-acre wildlife refuge called Magee Marsh on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. Every year, more than 100,000 birders traipse to this place for a glimpse of such bird species as the Blackburnian, prothonotary, and Kirtland’s warblers.

These birders don’t just visit to walk on the trails and view the birds with their naked eyes. They bring along binoculars purchased somewhere. They spend money – hard cash or credit cards – for hotels, food, cameras, video cameras, and others on their wants and needs lists. By one estimate, Magee Marsh and five other Lake Erie birdwatching areas “generated $26 million and created 283 jobs” in 2011 alone.

The Audubon article declares further: “In an economic analysis released in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that, based on a 2006 survey, birders spend $12 billion annually on travel, plus an additional $24 billion on equipment like binoculars, camping gear, and nest boxes. That money ripples through the economy and generates $82 billion in output, employs 671,000 people, and enriches state and federal governments by $10 billion.”

Now, who are we calling birdbrain again?