Humans have interacted with birds in a variety of ways since before civilization. Birds have been feared, admired, and even regarded as deities or spirits. They have been hunted for meat and feathers, and have been quietly observed by naturalists. Birds have been kept as companions, and enriched the lives of those who love them. They are among the most diverse and most beautiful of animals.
Birds evolved from dinosaur ancestors around 150 million years ago, and are warm blooded egg-layers. Aside from their obvious wings and feathers, birds are characterized by hollow bones and toothless beaks. Species range from a mere 2” Bee Hummingbird to a towering 9’ Ostrich. People may marvel at the tremendous variety of color and pattern in this class, though we do not see birds as they see each other. Human color vision is actually rather poor compared to that of many bird species. Birds have sharper vision as well as the ability to more precisely distinguish color, due to the structure of avian eyes. Parrots, songbirds, and other groups yet to be tested also perceive a fourth primary color, allowing them to see into the ultraviolet range.
Birds are enormously widespread across the globe. There are over 10,000 known species in existence today, but in the last 400 years humans have sent over 150 (probably many more) to extinction. Over 1,000 species are seriously threatened, with many more in danger of decline. Humans have taken a toll on bird species in many ways: destruction of habitat, use of pesticides, hunting / “pest” killing, and the introduction of non-native species. The latter is a particular problem with island species, many of which have become ground-nesters, and/or have no fear of predators. In the US alone, 60+ million feral cats are responsible for an estimated 480 million bird deaths per year – not including birds killed by domestic pets.
Birds have been exploited by people for feathers as well as food. The poultry/egg industry is notoriously cruel, and practices such as beak and toe clipping (painful maiming) and cramped battery cages (in which a hen cannot flap or stretch her wings) are the industry standard for over 95% of “food” birds. Most of these social, intelligent creatures never see grass or sunlight. Additionally, ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys, and other fowl are not subject to the Humane Slaughter Act, meaning they can be killed without being stunned. Many feather products are actually by-products of these cruel factory farms, so it is important to investigate the source of possible purchases such down bedding and feathers for crafting.
Millions of people interact with avian species in a positive way – bird-watching. This is a rewarding hobby for many people who cultivate bird-friendly gardens or set out seasonal feeders. Birds are also wonderful companions, though they generally require more time and attention than cats and dogs. Parrots especially can be very demanding, and personalities vary greatly among species as well as individuals. Birds represent many themes in art and culture: life, death, freedom, and even luck - but above all, birds are symbolic of hope. Perhaps the hope that people will learn to appreciate and protect bird diversity, and treat them as the amazing creatures they are.