How Do Birds Help Us? Let Us Count the Ways

Updated: Sep 13

Birds are beloved by many for the joy they bring to our lives. From shorebirds along our waterways to raptors soaring overhead to songbirds in our yards and parks, birds are a constant in our lives, and their antics can be entertaining, educational and everything in between.

A ruby-throated hummingbird. (Photo courtesy of Mourad Riad)

Because they are always around, it can be easy to take them for granted, but birds play a critical role in the ecosystem, several roles actually. Here are some of the many reasons we should appreciate and be thankful for birds for more than just the beauty they add to our world.


They are free pest control


We often think of birds as eating seeds and fruits because that’s what they eat in our yards, but many birds also rely on insects for a large part of their nutrition. It’s this part of their diet that does us a big favor in the form of free pest control.


By eating insects, birds help keep the bug populations from becoming too large, so having them nearby is a good thing. Birds eat between 450 million tons and 550 million tons of insects each year! While this helps us around our homes and neighborhoods, it also helps farmers control insects that can harm crops.


It’s not just insect-eating birds we owe a debt of gratitude to. Many raptors, which are birds like owls, hawks and eagles, are at the top of the food chain and keep the ecosystem in balance through their hunting activities. Without them, our environment could become overpopulated with some of the creatures they frequently hunt, like rodents and other small mammals.


They pollinate


Insects get all the headlines when it comes to pollinating, but other animals contribute to this essential function, including some birds. In the United States, hummingbirds, in particular, are vital for their role as pollinators. Other birds that do important work as pollinators include sunbirds in Africa and honeyeaters and lorikeets in Australia.

 

Words to know

Antics: Foolish or amusing behavior.

Carcass: The dead body of an animal.

Cavity: An empty space within a solid object.

Gratitude: The quality of being thankful.

Indication: A sign or piece of information that indicates something.

 

Hummingbirds typically pollinate flowers that are tubular in shape, or have cups, funnels or tubes and offer strong support for perching. They prefer red, orange and yellow flowers, and they often visit flowers without a pleasant fragrance because they don’t have a good sense of smell.


How does pollination work? It’s how plants reproduce. When hummingbirds, or any other pollinators, visit flowers, they become covered in pollen. They aren’t there for the pollen. Most often, they are looking for nectar. When they move on to other flowers, they transfer pollen from one flower to the next. When pollen is transferred from the male anther to the female stigma, the plant can reproduce.


Other pollinators besides birds and insects include bats and some reptiles, such as some species of lizards, skinks and geckos. Even some large mammals are pollinators. In Madagascar, the black and white ruffed lemur is a pollinator, making it the largest pollinator in the world.


They work as a cleanup crew

A turkey vulture eating an animal carcass. (Photo courtesy of Darek Konopka)

Cleaning up is hard work, but luckily we have birds to thank for doing some of this work for us, in the form of eating animal carcasses. Turkey vultures are the most well-known consumers of dead animals in the bird world, but they are far from the only ones. Eagles aren’t above eating carcasses, and neither are hawks and many other raptors. Crows and ravens will eat meat from dead animals, as will some gulls and terns.


As disgusting as this may seem, it’s very useful for keeping the environment clean. Without animals feasting on carcasses, they would begin to pile up, and it wouldn’t just be an unsightly mess. When vultures and other birds feast on dead animals, they also help prevent bacteria and diseases from spreading. And just think of the smell if these animals were left to rot.


They create habitat for other species

A red-headed woodpecker. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Rust)

Peek inside a hole in a tree and you’re likely to find evidence that an animal, most often a bird, has used it for a nest. Woodpeckers are probably the most well-known cavity-nesting birds, but they’re not the only ones. And it turns out that when woodpeckers abandon a nesting cavity after using it, they’re leaving it in move-in condition for other birds.


When woodpeckers leave behind these nesting grounds, they’re actually increasing the long-term survival rates for birds like flycatchers, titmice and wrens. In fact, among birds, woodpeckers in particular are notable for being an indicator of a healthy environment or habitat. Where you find woodpeckers, you’re likely to find many other bird species as well.


Birds aren’t the only cavity nesters in the animal kingdom, however. When a bird moves out after nesting season is over, any number of creatures may take refuge in it. Peek carefully if you see a tree cavity. You may just find raccoons, opossums, bats and any number of spiders or insects taking advantage of the shelter.


They help fertilize


Not all bird poop is created equal, and some, particularly that of seabirds, has a superpower. Because seabirds mostly eat fish and other sea animals, their droppings are particularly effective as fertilizer that can help plants grow.


This superpower isn’t as useful today as it was decades ago, before commercial fertilizers were commonly available. However, the fertilizing value of bird poop has been so valuable throughout history that at one point Spain started a war over access to large deposits of the poop on the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru.


Bird poop is still big business in Peru, where it is harvested along the coastline for use as fertilizer. The bird droppings from along the coast are particularly valuable because the birds there eat huge amounts of anchovies. It is effective as a fertilizer because it contains phosphorus and other minerals that help plants grow.

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