What Do Birds Do for Us?
Some might not realize the tangible value of birds, but it would be foolish to underestimate how tough life would be without them.
"It may not sound like huge numbers," Johnson says. But personal incomes are so meager in Jamaica that without sufficient bird populations "it might render the coffee enterprise not viable for a small farmer." At the time of the study, the average per-capita gross national income in Jamaica was $3,400, which made the $1,500 in services that birds delivered to a 12-acre farm substantial. Kew Park now works with Jamaican forestry officials to plant indigenous shade trees like mahogany and almond, which provide warbler habitat. During early mornings, says co-owner Gina Green, the woods come alive with song. "You know you have a healthy system," she says, "when you have not just one species but 20 different species of birds."
Insect-eating birds protect apple orchards in the Netherlands and safeguard Missouri Ozarks white oaks, whose lumber is highly sought by furniture makers. And they reduce pest levels at organic wineries. Ornithologist Julie Jedlicka, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California-Berkeley, put up nest boxes at two Northern California vineyards. With the approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she simulated a pest outbreak by pinning insect larvae to pieces of cardboard and placing them between rows of grapes. The boxes attracted insect-eating birds, which in turn devoured 3.5 times more larvae than in control plots with larvae but no boxes. Leading the influx were western bluebirds, which have suffered terrible habitat loss in California's wine country because of agricultural and urban development. The bluebirds appear to consume blue-green sharpshooters, insects with piercing, sucking mouthparts that easily spread bacteria among plants. One of those bacteria causes a deadly grape blight called Pierce's disease.
The idea of using bluebirds to kill insects proved inspirational for Napa Valley's Spring Mountain Vineyard. Ron Rosenbrand, the vineyard manager, has installed 1,000 bluebird nest boxes since 2006--and watched the farm's once-rampant Pierce's disease disappear. "It's such a plus to find something in Mother Nature that is a total asset," he says. "I look at them and go, 'Thank you for working for us.' "
Birds stimulate economies just by being beautiful. Take a look at Magee Marsh, a 2,000-acre wildlife refuge on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. A stopover for neotropical migrants, which rest and refuel before crossing the lake, the marsh attracts more than 100,000 birders each year. They walk along a boardwalk, through a wooded beach ridge, in hopes of glimpsing Blackburnian, prothonotary, and Kirtland's warblers and many other species.
Along with their field glasses, these visitors bring their credit cards. Philip Xie, a professor and tourism researcher at Bowling Green State University, looked at Magee Marsh and five other Lake Erie birdwatching areas in Ohio. He calculated that the sites generated $26 million and created 283 jobs in 2011. Because birders arrive before the lake's summer tourists, local restaurants and hotels have bulked up their springtime payrolls. A ferry service now offers migration cruises. "We've effectively created a tourism season in what was the shoulder season," says Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. (She is married to Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman.)
That $26 million doesn't just come from hotel, restaurant, and ferry receipts. It also includes the fees an innkeeper pays her accountant; the vegetables a restaurant buys from local farmers; the movie tickets a park ranger buys on his day off. "I call it tentacles," says Melinda Huntley, executive director of the Ohio Travel Association.
Yet the local impact of birders can't be fully measured in dollars. By preserving wildlife habitat and focusing on hospitality, many towns along Lake Erie have developed distinct personalities. "These communities have a story to tell," Huntley says--a story that shows up in numerous ways, from a bird exhibit at an art museum to the bird sightings listed on blackboards at local eateries.
In an economic analysis released in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that, based on a 2006 survey, birders spend $12 billion annually on travel, plus an additional $24 billion on equipment like binoculars, camping gear, and nest boxes. That money ripples through the economy and generates $82 billion in output, employs 671,000 people, and enriches state and federal governments by $10 billion.
Sekercioglu, the Utah ornithologist, emphasizes the importance of birding in developing countries, where other tourism jobs tend to be menial and low paying. By contrast, he says, indigenous people with a grasp of natural history can make decent money as birdwatching guides, even with only rudimentary English skills.
Measuring the global impact of birding is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 1990s a New York Zoological Society biologist computed that in the jungles of Peru "a single free-flying large macaw might generate $22,500 to $165,000 of tourist receipts in its lifetime." Around the same time, researchers estimated the annual value of flamingo viewing in Kenya's Lake Nakuru National Park at $2.5 million to $5 million. More recently, on Scotland's Isle of Mull, the 600,000 visitors who came to see 28 white-tailed eagles in 2010 spent between $8 million and $13 million and created 110 jobs, says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.