Bird extinctions to ‘lay waste the human heart’

Among the pigeons: Humans and birds have always had a complex relationship © Getty Images

A new book charts the 30,000-year relationship between humans and birds in stunning detail. Now many bird species face extinction. This, warns author Mark Cocker, would be tragic for humans too.

For as long as humans have existed, we have felt a special connection with birds. That is the thesis of ‘Birds and People’, by Mark Cocker and photographer David Tipling, a monumental new study of the deep and complex relationship between bird life and humankind. With 650 contributors in 81 countries it tells a story that spans the globe, and stretches from the earliest cave paintings (our distant ancestors painted an owl on the wall of a cave in southern France 30,000 years ago) to the modern day.

Some aspects of the human-bird relationship have been merely practical. Birds are useful to humans: in Japan, tethered cormorants help humans catch fish; in Mongolia, nomads hunt with golden eagles; until recently, British coal miners took canaries with them down pits to detect poisonous gases building up underground. Most importantly, birds are food. Chickens alone account for half the world’s meat production, as well as laying billions of eggs each year.

But there is a spiritual side to the relationship too. In many cultures around the world, birds have been associated with gods. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the sacred ibis; Romans thought birds could tell the future. Even today, many British people give a superstitious salute to passing magpies, or break the lucky wishbone of their Christmas turkey.

Individual bird species often take on their own special meaning: the migrating swallow brings in the summer; the cuckoo is the intruder in an alien nest; the vulture is hated for preying on the dead and dying; the scavenging crow haunts battlefields; the owl is feared, all over the world, as a spirit of the dead.

Humans have often feared birds. Filmgoers in the 1960s were terrified by Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thriller in which birds go mad and start attacking humans. Birds, as biologists know, are the closest living relatives of ancient dinosaurs.

But humans are the real dangerous ones in this relationship. The human capacity for slaughter is unparallelled: in the 1850s, US bird watchers counted billions of passenger pigeons in a single flock. By 1914, the species was extinct. Not surprisingly, one bird species in eight is now on the red endangered list. Perhaps humanity’s relationship with our ‘feathered friends’ is best captured by another symbolic bird: the dodo.

Watch the birdie!

Losing more bird species would be an environmental tragedy, say conservationists. Humans have a duty to protect this fragile, beautiful world which we inhabit.

Mark Cocker agrees, but adds something more: birds are inextricably bound up with human culture, spirituality, language and art. Protecting birds is not just our duty to the environment, but also our duty to ourselves.

‘Birds and People’, by Mark Cocker, was published by Jonathan Cape, August 2013.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite kind of bird? Why?
  2. Bird-lovers sometimes refer to birds as ‘our feathered friends.’ Can animals and people ever really be friends?

Activities

  1. Birds are a huge part of everyday language. How many phrases and expressions involving birds can you think of? Make a list, alone or as a class.
  2. Write a report on a bird species of your choice. You should include information about its habitat, appearance and behaviour, and a paragraph on its relationship with humans. Is the relationship a positive or negative one?

Some People Say...

“Birds are terrifying emotionless killers. Who cares if they die?”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do birds matter any more than mammals or fish?
Birds, because they can fly, cover huge amounts of territory in their lifetimes and are uniquely sensitive to changes in the environment as a whole. Healthy bird life is a sign of a healthy planet.
I’m still not convinced they deserve so much attention.
Healthy bird life is a good sign. Unhealthy bird life could be a very very bad one. A few years ago, there was an outbreak of so-called ‘bird-flu’, a deadly infectious disease that spreads between birds but can be passed to humans. That outbreak passed, but bird flu would only have to evolve a little further to become a devastating human pandemic. Humans have been killing birds for centuries, but it may turn out to be birds who get the last laugh.

Word Watch

Canaries
Carbon monoxide, which builds up in mines, is deadly poisonous but also colourless and odourless. Canaries are much more sensitive to the gas than humans, so to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, you can simply take a canary with you down the pit. If the canary drops dead, it is time for you to leave.
Sacred ibis
The ibis was sacred to the ancient Egyptian moon god, Thoth, perhaps because the curve of the ibis beak reminded Egyptians of the moon. Ibises were protected by the law of the pharaohs – perhaps the oldest recorded act of conservation.
Cuckoo
Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. The host birds then nurse the cuckoo egg as if it were their own. When the cuckoo chick hatches, it kills all other chicks in the nest, but parent birds usually keep on feeding it until it is too late.
The dodo
The dodo was a large flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. When humans arrived on the island, dodos were easy prey. Overhunting, along with destruction of habitat and competition from invasive species that arrived with humans, soon drove the dodo to extinction.

Subjects

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