How Can Birds Help Monitor the Health of Ecosystems?

Keren Bernal
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7.92

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Scientists can observe birds to get useful information about the health of, and changes in, an ecosystem.

The next time you're on your morning walk to school, take a moment to stop and listen to what’s going on around you. What do you hear? Cars driving down the road? Other people walking past you?

One thing that might have slipped your mind is the vibrant chirping coming from birds. Birds and their beautiful songs have become such a normal part of our day that we sometimes forget that they're there.

But birds do more than just give you a nice tune to listen to in the morning (or create annoying noise if you like to sleep in!). Birds play a big role in our environment. Scientists are able to use birds as bioindicators. Bioindicators are species, groups of species or biological processes that scientists can study in order to learn about the surrounding ecosystem.

A good bioindicator is one that is:

  • common;
  • widely studied; and
  • sensitive to what is disturbing or stressing the environment.
     

Some birds make good bioindicators. This means that scientists can study these birds to learn about the quality of the environment that these birds live in.

Did you know? 

Bioindicators include more than just living animals. Bioindicators can also be plants. Plants like lichens can indicate how much pollution is in the air. 

Canary in a coal mine 

Mining foreman R. Thornburg shows a small cage with a canary used for testing carbon monoxide gas in 1928
Mining foreman R. Thornburg shows a small cage with a canary used for testing carbon monoxide gas in 1928 (Source: George McCaa, U.S. Bureau of Mines via Smithsonianmag.com).

Have you ever heard of the saying “canary in a coal mine?” This saying comes from the days when coal miners used canaries to indicate when toxic gas levels (like methane or carbon monoxide) in the coal mines were too high. Canaries are more sensitive to the toxic gases than humans. If the canary became sick or died, the workers knew it was time to exit the coal mine immediately. Even though these birds weren’t exactly used for scientific reasons, they were still important as bioindicators. They literally helped humans stay alive!

Birds and habitat restoration 

Birds can also indicate when their environment is healthy and full of life! This is especially important when we want to know whether habitat restoration efforts are paying off.

For example, the Florida Everglades is a huge, rich wetland ecosystem. Humans have created canals and levees in the area for farming, water supplies, and flood control. This has been going on for over a century, and it has really changed the ecosystem.

Everglades restoration project
Everglades restoration project (Source: public domain from the National Park Service, USA via Wikimedia Commons ).

Various projects in the area aim to restore the habitat and bring back original water flow. One result of this would be more shallow areas.

In a 2009 study, scientists showed how birds could indicate whether these restoration efforts were working. Egrets are birds that hunt in deep waters. If scientists saw egrets in the area, they knew that restoration efforts were not successful. Meanwhile, storks and ibises like to hunt in shallow waters. If scientists saw storks or ibises, they knew the water flow was low. That meant restoration efforts were successful.

Indicator birds of the Florida everglades. From left to right: Reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens), Wood stork (Mycteria americana) and American white ibises (Eudocimus albus)
Indicator birds of the Florida everglades. From left to right: Reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens), Wood stork (Mycteria americana) and American white ibises (Eudocimus albus) (Sources: Andrea Westmoreland [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons; Murray Foubister [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons ; RandomReplicator [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons ).

 

Summing up

As you can see, birds do more than just sit in trees and sing. They give us a heads-up when our environment is changing. They also give us an opportunity to find solutions to environmental problems before humans get affected. So next time you’re on your walk to school, take a moment to appreciate and listen to the birds chirping. They actually do a lot to protect us!

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • Do you have plants or pets in your home or neighbourhood? If so, what clues can they give you about conditions in your home or environment?
  • Do you know anyone who works or has worked in a mine? Do you have any concerns for their safety? 
  • How would you feel if you were in a mine and had to rely on a bird to monitor the air quality around you?

Connecting and Relating

  • Do you have plants or pets in your home or neighbourhood? If so, what clues can they give you about conditions in your home or environment?
  • Do you know anyone who works or has worked in a mine? Do you have any concerns for their safety? 
  • How would you feel if you were in a mine and had to rely on a bird to monitor the air quality around you?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • In the Florida Everglades, scientists studied birds as bioindicators. But in the coal mines, everyday workers paid attention to the canaries. Should non-scientists be trained to pay attention to possible bioindicators in their environment? Or is this work best left to scientists? Explain your answer.

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • In the Florida Everglades, scientists studied birds as bioindicators. But in the coal mines, everyday workers paid attention to the canaries. Should non-scientists be trained to pay attention to possible bioindicators in their environment? Or is this work best left to scientists? Explain your answer.

Exploring Concepts

  • Why are small animals used as bioindicators? In the past, small horses and donkeys were used in mines. Would they have worked as bioindicator species? Why or why not?
  • Research a species that is used today as a bioindicator of environmental health. What is the species? How is it used as a bioindicator? Where is it used most commonly? 

Exploring Concepts

  • Why are small animals used as bioindicators? In the past, small horses and donkeys were used in mines. Would they have worked as bioindicator species? Why or why not?
  • Research a species that is used today as a bioindicator of environmental health. What is the species? How is it used as a bioindicator? Where is it used most commonly? 

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • What technology replaced the canaries in the coal mines? What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of the technological replacements for canaries? 
  • Why are we still using living species as bioindicators? What fields of science rely on bioindicators for providing relevant data to make analyzes and scientific claims? 

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • What technology replaced the canaries in the coal mines? What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of the technological replacements for canaries? 
  • Why are we still using living species as bioindicators? What fields of science rely on bioindicators for providing relevant data to make analyzes and scientific claims? 

Media Literacy

  • Perhaps you have heard someone use the expression “the canary in coal mine.” How would you label this type of expression? What does the expression mean? 

Media Literacy

  • Perhaps you have heard someone use the expression “the canary in coal mine.” How would you label this type of expression? What does the expression mean? 

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning about environmental monitoring of ecosystems. It focuses on the concept of bioindicators, specifically how birds are used as bioindicators.
  • Before reading this article, you could introduce the topic using the Connecting & Relating question above as a guide.   
  • After reading this article students could complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to build their understanding of the term bioindicator  Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Concept Definition strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • To go further, students could read the Let's Talk Science STEM in Context article Using Mussels to Monitor the Environment. This article focuses on biomonitoring of aquatic ecosystems and introduces the concepts of bioaccumulation and biomagnification.

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning about environmental monitoring of ecosystems. It focuses on the concept of bioindicators, specifically how birds are used as bioindicators.
  • Before reading this article, you could introduce the topic using the Connecting & Relating question above as a guide.   
  • After reading this article students could complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to build their understanding of the term bioindicator  Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Concept Definition strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • To go further, students could read the Let's Talk Science STEM in Context article Using Mussels to Monitor the Environment. This article focuses on biomonitoring of aquatic ecosystems and introduces the concepts of bioaccumulation and biomagnification.

Learn more

Everglades: go with the flow (2017) 

Daniel Allen, for Geographical magazine, writes on how snake populations are being used to look at the overall health of the Florida Everglades.

The Story of the Real Canary in the Coal Mine (2016) 

An article for the Smithsonian Institute by Kat Eschner gives a brief historical overview of Canaries being used in coal mines to detect methane gas leaks due to their vulnerabilities to air-borne toxins.

Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts (2010)

A paper by Emily Holt and published by The Nature Education Knowledge Project which discusses how using different organisms can help us measure environmental impacts.

References

Frederick, P., Gawlik, D., Ogden, J., Cook, M., & Lusk, M. (2009). The white ibis and wood stork as indicators for restoration of the everglades ecosystem. Ecological Indicators, 9(6), S83-S95. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2008.10.012

Hill, J. (n.d.). Birds as environmental indicators. Environmentalscience.org.