Everyone who studies animals eventually has someone, whether it be a family member, friend, or classmate, ask “Why [insert animal here]?” The variety of creatures people choose to devote their lives to studying is amazing. From salamanders sliding through the mud to whales gliding through the ocean to wolves prowling dark forests, there is always an animal out there to make your own.
So, why birds?
I think to really answer the question of why I study birds, I need to go back to the roots of human fascination with feathered creatures. They have been an integral part of human culture for thousands of years. In Aztec legend, their great city was founded on the spot
where an eagle was found feasting on a snake. Soaring angels adorn medieval churches, their snowy wings spread to the heavens. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was represented by an owl. Even today, popular culture is inundated with birds – in the US the Bald Eagle is a national symbol, doves represent peace and harmony, and birds in general represent freedom. As Jenny said in Forrest Gump, “God, please make me into a bird so I can fly far, far away.”
Birds have always held a fascination for humans, and I am no exception. The sheer number of habitats, nesting preferences, food sources, and shapes and sizes birds encompass is astounding. Hummingbirds flitting like jeweled insects, penguins diving into the frigid ocean, and ostriches sprinting over the plains of Africa are all part of the same incredible piece of the animal kingdom.
Despite our apparent fascination with birds, humans haven’t always been good about valuing them. Millions of Passenger Pigeons that used to darken the skies each spring and autumn were shot and sold until the last remaining member of the species died in a zoo. The lovely Carolina Parakeet was hunted for its feathers as the forests it called home were cleared away, and it too went extinct.
However, one thing I love about birds is that they’re fighters. Given half a chance, they will pull through and thrive. When Bald Eagles were reintroduced to Indiana, they made a comeback at a rate no one ever could have predicted, and now it’s possible to see dozens along a river corridor on a winter afternoon’s drive. When the entire population of California Condors was taken into captivity for captive breeding, the species managed to bounce back and now exists in the wild. Even Eastern Bluebirds, the species I study, were once in decline due to lack of nesting space and competition with invasive species. Humans began providing nest boxes, and their numbers have been on the rise ever since.
I want to continue to be able to walk out onto a trail and spot an eagle soaring overhead, or find a Whooping Crane amid a flock of Sandhills on a crisp fall day. I don’t want future generations to only be able to see a Kirtland’s Warbler as a stuffed museum specimen.
Why birds? There isn’t really one simple answer. I really just want to give these fascinating animals a chance at surviving in a changing world. I want to make sure that birds are living, breathing parts of our culture and not a memory of what once was. I want to, in my own small way, make a difference to these amazing members of the natural world.