Birds are so much a part of our lives, even in cities, that we can barely imagine what it would be like without them. Recently, we suffered a devastating hailstorm in Armidale, New South Wales. Buildings and power poles were mangled. Trees were stripped of their leaves and branches broken as if they were matchsticks. Unexpectedly, the worst part of our experience was not the storm itself but the aftermath. We were struck by the quiet, a stillness of foreboding or mourning, and then we realised what was missing. There were no sounds of insects or birds. Not a single tone or indication of life could be heard. We realised how much background noise, including the songs and calls of birds, was part of our subconscious, how much we really lived with the birds in our garden and how very important they were to us.
Birds signal life. They also indicate that the environment is healthy. After a forest fire, there is the same deadly stillness. Some birds succumb to the flames, others manage to migrate to safe areas. Some even return days later to scavenge among the devastation. A miracle happened the day after the hailstorm. A pair of tawny frogmouths that Gisela Kaplan had raised some time earlier flew over to us with their first offspring in tow. Their small, fragile bodies had survived the assault of huge hailstones. What strategy had they adopted for protection?
Slowly, other birds returned. They too were unharmed. There is no point in saying that birds are tough. Sheep and even horses had been killed that afternoon. We were impressed because we had witnessed an example of the outstanding success, ecologically speaking, of the class Aves. Birds are small enough to hide and skilful enough to do their hiding in a manner that avoids dangerous exposure. In a forest fire, they fly away. In a flood they stay in the treetops. Fragile they might be, but they have many resources and, as a class of animals, have adapted to living in almost every ecological niche on earth.
The class Aves is larger than the class Mammalia. Over 9000 avian species inhabit the earth but we have substantial information for only a fraction of these species. Today their number is shrinking but birds still occupy every niche of the planet. The highest concentration of birds of different species is found in wetlands and rainforests which are located around the tropical belts and in the southern hemisphere. But even in areas that are relatively impoverished by a lack of bird species, such as parts of northern Europe, birds feature as a significant part of human life; at times, they have become icons and part of the national consciousness of a people. (To be continue)
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A Part of Introduction The Amazing Book of Gisela Kaplan & Lesley J. Rogers “BIRDS, THEIR HABITS AND SKILLS.
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