why birds matter jonathan franzen

Bird populations do, however, provide useful information about the state of our moral principles. As our last, best link to a natural world that is otherwise disappearing, birds are important and should be valued. They are the most accurate and prevalent depictions of the Earth before humans arrived. They are descended from the largest land animals ever to walk: the house finch, a tiny, exquisitely adapted living dinosaur that lives outside your window. A duck in your neighborhood pond resembles and sounds a lot like a duck from 20 million years ago, during the Miocene epoch, when birds dominated the earth. We may not see any justification for cherishing and defending the formerly dominant species of the natural world in an increasingly artificial world where featherless drones are commonplace and we can play Angry Birds games on our phones. After stepping down from the throne, Shakespeare’s King Lear begs his two older daughters to give him a little taste of his former majesty, but is economic calculation our highest standard? Consigning birds to oblivion is to forget what we are the children of. The old king exclaims, “O, reason not the need!” when the daughters respond that they don’t see the need for it.

However, birds are also able to do something that humans only dream of being able to do: fly. Eagles soar on thermals with ease, hummingbirds pause midair, and quail leap heartlessly into the air. When considered collectively, bird flight paths connect the planet like 100 billion filaments, connecting continents and trees alike. They never experienced a moment when the world seemed big to them. A European swift will remain in the air for almost a year after mating, traveling to and from sub-Saharan Africa while eating, moulting, and sleeping on the wings without ever setting foot on the ground. Before making their first landfall to breed, young albatrosses can roam the ocean for up to ten years. A ruby-throated hummingbird may need to expend a third of its tiny body weight in order to cross the Gulf of Mexico, while a bar-tailed godwit has been observed flying nonstop 7,264 miles from Alaska to New Zealand in nine days. A small shorebird species called the red knot travels yearly in circles from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic; one enduring individual, known as B95 because of a tag on its leg, has flown farther than the distance between Earth and the moon.

Birds are not just diverse, vivid and extraordinary. They can also save our souls – let’s protect them.

Birds’ radical otherness is essential to their value and beauty. They are always among us but never of us. Their disregard for us should be a sobering reminder that we are not the center of the universe. Birds can function without the mental constructs of the stories we tell about the past and envision for the future. Birds live squarely in the present. And even though billions of them are killed annually by our cats, windows, and pesticides, and even though some species have vanished forever, their world is still very much in existence today. Chicks are pecking through their shells and into the light in nests the size of haystacks or as small as walnuts, everywhere in the world.

Birds are no less diverse behaviourally. Some are highly social, others anti. Millions of African queleas and flamingos congregate, and parakeets construct entire stick-built cities. On the bottoms of mountain streams, dippers stroll by themselves and underwater, while solitary albatrosses can travel 500 miles without encountering another bird of prey with their three-meter wingspan. I have encountered both friendly and mean birds in my travels. A friendly one once pursued me along a trail in New Zealand, and a mean one once swooped down from Chile and attempted to rip off my head because I was staring at it for too long. Roadrunners collaborate to kill rattlesnakes for food, with one bird distracting the snake while another approaches from behind. Bee-eaters eat bees. Leaftossers toss leaves. Peregrine falcons can dive down from the air at 240 miles per hour, while thick-billed murres can descend to a depth of 213 meters (700 feet). One half-acre pond can be home to a wren-like rushbird for its entire life, while a cerulean warbler may migrate to Peru and then return to the New Jersey tree where it nested the previous year.

Birds’ radical otherness is essential to their value and beauty. They are always among us but never of us. Their disregard for us should be a sobering reminder that we are not the measure of everything since they are the other dominant animals that evolution has produced. Birds can function without the mental constructs of the stories we tell about the past and envision for the future. Birds live squarely in the present. Even though billions of them are killed annually by our cats, windows, and pesticides, and even though some species—especially those found on oceanic islands—have vanished from the face of the earth, their world is still very much in existence today. Chicks are pecking through their shells and into the light in nests the size of haystacks or as small as walnuts, everywhere in the world.

Birds are no less diverse behaviorally. Some are highly social, others anti. Millions of African queleas and flamingos congregate, and parakeets construct entire stick-built cities. A solitary albatross may glide 500 miles away from other albatrosses on its 10-foot wingspan, while dippers walk alone and underwater on the beds of mountain streams. I’ve encountered both friendly and mean birds, such as the caracara in Chile that swooped down and attempted to sever my head when I stared at it for too long. A friendly bird was the New Zealand fantail that once followed me along a trail. Roadrunners collaborate to kill rattlesnakes for food, with one bird distracting the snake while another approaches from behind. Bee-eaters eat bees. Leaftossers toss leaves. Peregrine falcons can dive down to 240 miles per hour, while thick-billed murres can reach a depth of 700 feet. One half-acre pond can be home to a wren-like rushbird for its entire life, while a cerulean warbler may migrate to Peru and then return to the New Jersey tree where it nested the previous year.

When someone says, “It’s unfortunate about the birds, but humans come first,” they are implying one of two things. The speaker may be implying that humans are no different from other animals and that, since our genes are essentially selfish, we will always go to great lengths to ensure our genes are replicated and our pleasure is maximized, damn the nonhuman world. Cynical realists hold this opinion, seeing concern for other species as nothing more than a bothersome form of sentimentality. It’s an unprovable viewpoint that anyone who doesn’t mind acknowledging that they are utterly selfish can adopt. However, “humans come first” could also mean that, because we are different from other animals in that we have consciousness, free will, the ability to remember the past and influence the future, and are thus uniquely worthy of controlling the resources of the planet. This alternative viewpoint, which is held by both secular humanists and religious adherents, cannot be proven to be true or untrue. However, it does pose the question: Doesn’t a unique ability come with a unique responsibility? If we are incomparably more worthy than other animals, shouldn’t our capacity to distinguish right from wrong and willingly give up a small amount of our convenience for the greater good make us more vulnerable to the claims of nature rather than less?

In the late Anthropocene, value has almost entirely come to refer to economic worth or utility to people. And certainly many wild birds are usefully edible. Some of them in turn eat noxious insects and rodents. Many others carry out essential functions in ecosystems whose continued wildness has touristic or carbon-sequestering value, such as pollinating plants, dispersing seeds, and providing food for mammalian predators. There is also a claim that bird populations serve as crucial ecological health indicators, similar to the well-known coal-mine canary. The sad truth is that wild birds by themselves will never make a significant contribution to the human economy, so do we really need their absence to alert us when a marsh is severely polluted, a forest is cut down and burned, or a fishery is destroyed? They want to eat our blueberries.

For most of my life, I didn’t pay attention to birds. Only in my 40s did I become a person whose heart lifts whenever he hears a grosbeak singing or a towhee calling and who hurries out to see a golden plover that’s been reported in the neighborhood, just because it’s a beautiful bird, with truly golden plumage, and has flown all the way from Alaska. When someone asks me why birds are so important to me, all I can do is sigh and shake my head, as if I’ve been asked to explain why I love my brothers. And yet the question is a fair one, worth considering in the centennial year of America’s Migratory Bird Treaty Act: Why do birds matter?