Birds are a key part of our environment

Column by Larry LaGrange

I’ve never been what you would call a bird watcher, unless that applies to observing our amusing summer hummingbirds jockey for position on our feeders. There’s also a mockingbird pair that frequents our neighborhood, and one of them always selects the tallest perch he or she can find. I figure it’s a male since that high spot indicates ego is involved. I like listening to them use their loudspeaker voices to immerse the area in song. These are birds with attitude, even chasing away squirrels that get too close.

As a member of the Hoosier Outdoor Writers, I get their publication. The editor is a big-time bird man. He makes special trips to photograph them and publish his work in our magazine. OK. I can see that would be a nice hobby.

I love watching eagles. There’s a place I fish near the Patoka River that frequently rewards me with an eagle sighting. This majestic bird also inhabits an area I fish on the White River near Shoals.

Sad to say, growing up I used to kill umpteen sparrows, starlings, and blackbirds near my Perry County home. Dad told me that these targets were acceptable to shoot, but that I shouldn’t bother more desirable birds, such as redbirds, wrens, and robins. Blue jays were iffy, but they were pretty so I didn’t bother them. I don’t know what made sparrows and such undesirable, but I learned how to shoot hunting these guys. I even had a scope on my BB gun.

Of course I hunt quail, a most enjoyable sport. I used to crow hunt, first using a mouth call and then a taped distressed crow sound on a portable player. It seemed wasteful though. I would kill a crow, and then what would I do with it? I figured then the only living things I would ever shoot would be something I could bring to the table.

An issue with birds is the potential for human disease. In addition to avian flu, histoplasmosis is a serious respiratory illness that results from a fungus growing in bird droppings. Encephalitis is spread by mosquitoes which have fed on infected birds carrying the virus. Dust from droppings can be sucked through ventilators and air conditioners, contaminating food or cooking surfaces.

I knew birds have some down sides, but I found out some positives when I recently read an article by Barry Yeoman entitled “What Do Birds Do for Us?” Some highlights:

*An estimated 1300 species of birds face extinction over the next century, and many more are suffering from extreme habitat loss due to human activity.

*Healthy bird populations are essential to human welfare. Birds help keep farmers in business; they help protect our drinking water by preventing erosion; they help keep the furniture industry supplied with timber; they provide critical environmental data. Insect eaters protect apple orchards in the Netherlands and safeguard Missouri white oaks, which are highly prized by furniture makers. They reduce losses at wineries by consuming the larvae of pests.

*When the Mormons settled Utah in the 19th century, the first two crop seasons were destroyed by western crickets. One historian wrote that the people were in despair until sea gulls came by the thousands. Before the next season’s grain could be entirely destroyed, they devoured the insects so that the fields could be mostly free of them. The settlers regarded this as a heaven-sent miracle.

What about those crows that I used to hunt? There’s a huge amount of roadkill on our highways. Things would get pretty nasty if we didn’t have scavengers around to clean up the mess.

In India, Hinduism prohibits the slaughter and consumption of cows, so livestock dies out in the open. Vultures arrive, and in short order they finish everything perishable — no mess and no stench. In the 90’s researchers noticed a drop in population of oriental vultures. Today their numbers have been reduced by 99 percent. The cause has been traced to an anti-inflammatory called diclofenac, which is used as a painkiller for aging cows but triggers fatal kidney disease in vultures. Without vultures, carcass disposal has been left to feral dogs, who now roam India’s trash dumps looking for piles of dead cattle. With this came more dog bites and instances of rabies. Between 1992 and 2006, dog bites resulted in 48,000 additional deaths. The vulture-dog connection produced health costs of $34 billion over 14 years.

Most of us have heard of canaries in the coal mines reacting to poisonous gas, but have you heard that pheasants were used in World War I to detect oncoming hostile aircraft? They gave the alarm through insistent cries. How about carrier pigeons? They dodged bullets to transport messages that helped the Allies capture German submarines.

Birds alone can’t tell scientists everything they need to know about ecosystem health, but if there are major problems with the environment, one researcher says, “We’re going to pick it up through birds.”

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