Birds for All Seasons: An Appreciation

  • On the hunt to see the wild birds in Presque Isle, Erie. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

May 23, 2014

It's spring bird migration season, and Presque Isle in Erie, Pa., is one of the best spots in the country to see migrating birds. Right now they’re fueling up for long flights over the Great Lakes.  To mark the occasion each year, the Presque Isle Audubon Society holds a Festival of Birds. But these are just the most immediate reasons we're producing a spring bird show.

Truth is, we humans have been fascinated by birds for 35,000 years. The earliest cave paintings in France show an image of an owl someone sketched with their finger into soft mud. 

Birds appear in royal family crests. In the 1880s, fashionable women wore elaborate hats adorned with bird feathers—or entire bodies.

These days, we still like to show off our connection with birds... naming housing developments or businesses after them... and of course, they're still the stuff of art. How could they not be with all of those colors? Think of the red cardinal in winter! 

 

And perhaps another big reason we're so intrigued by birds is because they do one of the things that we can't easily: fly.

But despite our appreciation, we humans have caused the decline of birds. Since the 1500s, about 500 bird species have disappeared and their population is down by 25 percent.

 

We've cut down forests, introduced invasive species, let feral cat populations grow, changed the climate.  Even putting crystal clear windows on our homes causes many birds to perish when they fly into them.  And our wind farms can end up slaughtering thousands of birds even as they stave off the climate change that hurts birds.

By the year 2100, some scientists predict up to 14 percent of all bird species may become extinct.

Does it matter? Well, birds are workhorses.

They eat pests from crops like coffee. And they're like little environmental officials on the beat every day, testing air, water, and land for safety. "Canary in a coal mine" is more than just a phrase.

And then there is their music. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson starkly reminded us how much we’d miss bird songs if they were gone.

So, will birds make it? Will they rebound phoenixlike—just as that bird in Greek myth?

Well, there's hope in the fact that birds DO return to the places that clean up their air and water. There's hope in the research is going on at Penns

ylvania institutions and elsewhere to do things like create more bird-friendly wind farms, and develop windows that clue in birds to veer away. There's hope in the fact that birding is a growing recreational activity.

And so it is that we meet some of those bird fans on The Allegheny Front, recorded by Reid Frazier, and me, in Presque Isle.

Photo: Eight-year-old Bella Arduino at the bird banding station at the Presque Isle Festival of Birds. Photo: Reid R. Frazier. Closeup of Gray Catbird by J.S.Jordan.