What’s the value of bird diversity?

North American scientists have demonstrated that more diverse bird populations can help to buffer people against infection from West Nile virus, according to recent research highlighted in BirdLife International’s News section today. The article (available in full from PLoS ONE, here) demonstrates a link between high bird diversity and low incidence of West Nile virus in humans in eastern North America.

According to the authors, these results “illustrate an important ecosystem service provided by biodiversity, further supporting the growing view that protecting biodiversity should be considered in public health and safety plans.” The study contributes to our growing understanding of the importance of preserving bird diversity – the many benefits include maintaining important ecosystem services (like buffering humans from infectious diseases) that have direct impacts on humans.
We are sometimes faced with the question of why it matters to ensure that all of our bird species are conserved. Why, for example, does it matter if we have Canada Warblers or Olive-sided Flycatchers left in Canada, if we have lots of other similar species with overlapping habitats and niches? Well, abundant bird diversity can mean more fully realized delivery of ecosystem services, like pest control from these insectivorous birds, or contributing to a buffer against disease. But we shouldn’t forget the myriad intangible benefits of biodiversity, often having little relationship to direct or measurable benefits to humans, but that could be seen as at least as important as those ecosystem services.
I bring up Canada Warblers and Olive-sided Flycatchers for a reason: the Government of Canada is currently consulting on whether to add these (and many other) declining species to their official list of species under the Species at Risk Act. It is only through this listing that at-risk species receive the formal protection and recovery benefits offered by this legislation. It seems that all too often government hears about why a species at risk should not be listed, but they don’t hear enough from those that support the legal listing. If you value bird biodiversity (for whatever reason), and want to make sure that it is maintained in Canada, I urge you to add your voice to the consultation. Go to the Species at Risk Public Registry and fill out their online comment form. Comments are due March 20, 2009.
(Photo: Olive-sided Flycatcher, by Jeff Nadler)