A history of birds and humans

Way, way back in time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, birds evolved.  But our story starts a little bit before that with dinosaurs who had feathers and who could fly.  This was several hundred million years ago and these dinosaurs were huge. They had massive wings made of skin, think of a bat’s wing, and had feathers.

Then, over time, evolution led to the bird and then circumstances would result in the reign of the bird.  When dinosaurs were wiped out, birds could take to the stage.  At this point mammals were quite small and birds could be quite big.  In fact one vulture had a wingspan of over twenty feet so its no wonder birds essentially ruled the world for a while.  There were also huge flightless birds which dominated the land.

For those birds who could fly, this allowed them to travel far and wide and world domination is only a slight exaggeration.  Birds can be found all over the world – at their southern extreme, the snow petrel breeds 270 miles inland in the Antarctica.  Over 120 million years, they have adapted to very specific climates and environments and have lived very successfully ever since, possibly in part due to their very versatile beaks.  Whilst different species use them differently and have evolved different shapes and styles, they allow the bird to carry out actions they otherwise couldn’t; cracking open food, moving stones, pecking into trees and ice…

Today there are thought to be over 10,000 species of birds ranging range in size from the 5 cm bee hummingbird to the 2.75 m ostrich.

The success of birds has, of course, been impacted by the increase in human activity… Since the 17th century, 120-130 species of birds have become extinct and human activity is threatening at least 1,200 species today.  Of course, birds did become extinct before human activity but we are certainly having a significant impact on them and I’ll be looking at that later this month.

It is no surprise, given their range of habitats, that people and birds have a relationship that almost certainly dates back to the start of humanity.  Birds are prominent in the environment, they are a source of food in themselves and the eggs they lay and I can’t help but imagine that our ancestors would have been in awe of their ability to fly.

Stone age drawings and bones found in settlements provide evidence of this relationship.  Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, sometimes birds benefit from human activity and sometimes humans benefit from bird activity. This close relationship has seen its way into our languages with phrases such as nest egg, bird brained and birds eye view.  We also find birds throughout folklore, mythology and literature, areas which are so vast they need their own blog posts.

Modern threats from human include hunting, egg collecting, poisoning (accidental or intentional), predation from pets, habitat disruption and threats such as roads and wind turbines.  With this in mind it can be easy to overlook threats that birds pose to humans, a key example being diseases.  Because of the long distances birds can cover, they can spread diseases around the world and some of these can be transmitted to humans.  There are also incredibly violent birds such as the cassowary which can cause a lot of damage if threatened.


Perhaps one of the more obvious ways that birds and humans interact is through bird watching and the study of our feathered friends.  The study of birds began with Aristotle who had some interesting thoughts, especially about swallows.  He started the long lasting myth that they hibernate in winter, an idea that was still noted in the 19th century.  After Aristotle, things went fairly quiet until the 17th century and then in the 19th century, things really took off.

The Victorian era saw the field of natural history revitalised.  It was the time of Darwin’s concepts and his work on sexual selection encouraged interest in birds.  Bird collecting was encouraged as a pastime for young men as it got them outdoors and into the fresh air.  Given the camera was in it’s very early days, the best way to examine birds and to learn about them was through dead specimens and through eggs.  Birds would be shot and preserved, neither easy tasks especially prior to the 1820s when a more reliable method of preservation was made popular.  This allowed collectors to build up larger numbers of higher quality specimens but despite this, many remained unattractive and storage became a problem.

We also have to note that this was a time when British explorers were heading out to “discover” new places and find new specimens.  The early 1800s was a time of colonial expansion and expeditions regularly involved amateur or professional natural historians.  These ventures would return with drawings, details about sightings, dead and live specimens.  These were destined for private collections but the idea of public museums was coming alive and by 1830 they would feature major bird collections.

Other factors fed into this interest in birds and ornithology including the development and refinement of field glasses, first used in the 1820s but used more widely towards the end of the century.  The rise in field guides was another factor.

Bird watching grew in popularity, including amongst amateurs and over time the scientific community began to value the knowledge and data that the former could provide to advance discoveries and findings.

Bird watching had been revolutionised by the impact of easier travel, better technology, increased knowledge and ability to share this knowledge.  Today, bird watchers can use apps to identify species, to mark sightings and to share photos, and some of this is used by scientists to track birds and monitor changes.

Birds and humans have had a long history, some pretty and some considerably less so, and it is that relationship that I hope to focus on this month.

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