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Birds: a long, intertwined relationship

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With over 10,000 living species, birds are by far the largest group of species in the world. They inhabit all corners of the globe, no place is too far or conditions too rough. From birds of prey to small hummingbirds, there is an overwhelming diversity that is seldom present in other families. Humans and birds have lived together on Earth for thousands of years, leading us develop a relationship.

Wahlberg's Honeyguide (Prodotiscus regulus)
Wahlberg’s Honeyguide (Prodotiscus regulus); source wikimedia.org; author Alan Manson

From hunting them to working with them, they have always been ever-present within our history and culture. Some of those were positive interactions, mutualistic relationships, like honeyguides in Africa, others commensal, like with the common house sparrow. However, birds have also had negative relationships, serving as catalysts for disease or helping spread them across various lands. Additionally, our own technological evolution has led to an increase in bird deaths, either through hunting, pesticide poisoning, roadkill or wind turbine kills – not excluding predation from pets such as cats or dogs.

Whilst the descendants of dinosaurs currently make up the largest family of species in the animal kingdom, and have had a lasting relationship with us, they are also very important from an environmental perspective. Birds are responsible for more than you may realise, from seed dispersion and pollination to acting as an indicator of ecosystem health, these winged animals are the unsung heroes of more than one ecological biome.

Waterfowl such as ducks have an important role in wetland ecology; they are responsible for many processes including seed dispersal, pollination, cycling of nutrients and soil formation. Seabirds like albatross affect island ecology through guano concentration enriching the soils and oceans surrounding them, as well as aiding in seed dispersion across different islands. Nectar-feeding birds are important plant pollinators, and in many cases both the birds and the plants have coevolved together.

Say Hello to Ducks and Geese
Say Hello to Ducks and Geese

Due to their closeness with the surrounding environment, and the sheer number of species spread across the world, they also make for very good environmental indicators, as aforementioned. In recent years, changes in climate and other environmental factors has taken a toll on many bird species. Some of the threats are small, others, not so much, like the large amounts of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, the degradation of the Arctic circle, or the industrial pollution and rampant deforestation around the world.

Local and global troubles aside though, birds continue to enrich our lives on a cultural and environmental scale, and will continue to do so into the near future.

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