Birds as Indicators of Sustainability

'Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we'll soon be in trouble'. Roger Tory Peterson.

It is expensive and time consuming to accurately assess the biodiversity in an ecosystem. Therefore, scientists often use a representative group to know what is happening in that environment.

Several animals or species can act as indicators of environmental health. Birds are one such group that are often used for a number of reasons. Birds are everywhere and they are relatively easily seen and identified and we know a lot about them, their biology and their life-histories. Most people enjoy them for their beauty, their liveliness or their song. Ecosystems are usually so complex that no single component can speak for all the others. Nevertheless, birds can give an indication whether the system is healthy or otherwise, and their study can be a useful way to gain an understanding of ecosystems and their needs. Since a fully diverse ecology is needed to support a healthy number and range of species, a lower than expected number or range of species in an environment clearly indicates a lower ecological diversity. Birds are particularly good as environmental indicators because they:

  • live in almost every type of environment in Australia and in almost every niche (place or role) within those environments.
  • are at the top of the food-chain and are therefore vulnerable to accumulating chemicals
  • have representatives that depend on the full range of animal diets
  • are easy to see and observe
  • are already relatively well-known, providing a good baseline against which change can easily be monitored.

Birds have also been used as indicators of grassland, wetland, meadow, rainforest and desert health, of environmental hazards, and of changes in other types of biodiversity. Changes in living birds, both individuals and populations, are evidence of climate change and fossil birds have been used to indicate what past climates were like. Bird skins and eggs in museums have shown the history and damage caused by some pollutants, and changes in the timing of events in birds lives or in the places birds occur point to environmental change. The possibilities are endless.

In Australia the status of birds is used in environmental reports such as the State of the Environment, a report published every five years by the Department of Environment and Heritage. Much of the information used in these reports is gathered by the Birds Australia Atlas of Australian Birds, one of the largest wildlife databases in the world

The United Kingdom has a strong example of how highly regarded birds are as indicator species: the government uses the status of birds as one of 14 base-line Sustainability Indicators, along with their GDP. It is known as The Population of Wild Birds Quality of Life Indicator.

Please refer to the Answering the Call: Birds as Indicators Case Study for more information.

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