When you were a kid, did you ever own a pellet gun, an airgun, or even a tirador?
If you did, then you probably tried using it on some helpless bird in your backyard. And if you were as good as I am, you probably missed every shot.
Thankfully, my incompetence in accuracy is paying off because I wouldn’t have only shot birds down, I would’ve sabotaged the country in more ways than one.
Thanks to Facebook, I’ve seen more photos of birds being killed during the past few months than I have in the last twenty years put together.
When I first saw the post above, my initial reactions were of disgust and of frustration. Going by Facebook’s comments section, a lot of people felt the same way:
The good news is, the fact that so many were alarmed is a welcome sign that the environmental movement is alive in the Philippines.
What’s slightly worrying, though, is that barely no one mentions why these birds are important in the first place.
It’s either because everyone already knows their importance so they don’t bother repeating common sense information or the opposite: that not many people know at all.
So which one of them is true?
Up until a year ago when I started getting involved on the subject, I didn’t know or even care much about birds. But after annoying biologists, reading their research, and actually going out birdwatching, this was the message I got:
The Philippines gets worse off with each wild bird we kill, making us suffer 5 key consequences:
1. We’re forfeiting billions
Birds are worth much more in the wild than in cages, and it’s not about zoos.
I’m talking about birdwatching.
Unfortunately, if you mention birdwatching in the Philippines you’ll be met with blank, puzzled faces.
But in the United States, birdwatching contributes a whopping $85 billion to the economy and has created more than 860,000 jobs. This is thanks to 46 million birdwatchers who travel, buy equipment, pay park fees, and hire guides just to observe birds in their natural habitat.
This isnt exclusive to the US either. Even our close neighbors are way ahead of us.
I asked the founder of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, Mike Lu, about it and he said:
“Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong have more established birding societies. The Malaysian Nature Society was established more than 70 years ago. Even Taiwan, an island smaller than Luzon, has more than 20 bird clubs. There are more birdwatchers in these countries and a higher level of environmental awareness.“
Having legions of like minded people could be helpful to prevent killing for sport, like what this photo that appeared in my news feed last month shows:
Among the birds shot dead in that photo are the Black Naped Oriole (the yellow one), the Coppersmith Barbet (the green one), and the Philippine Bulbul (yes that’s really its name, its the white one on top).
Compare that to what those 3 look like from a birdwatcher’s point of view:
The good news is, birdwatching is growing in the country. According to Mike,
“10 years ago, people would ask what we were doing. Nowadays, with the help of media, I can hear people pointing to us and saying ‘Mga birdwatchers yan!'”
Here’s a bit of trivia I found that describes the Philippines’ potential as a birding destination: There are 15 species of birds that can only be found in the US mainland. The Philippines has more than 200.
So the next time you encounter a bunch of people in green with scopes and binoculars, say hello. You might just discover something new.
2. Our forests are tapping out
After centuries of legal and illegal logging, we only have 3% of our natural forests left. But, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which counts artificial plantations for harvesting as forests, we have 23%.
Either way, both amounts are dangerously low.
Do you know how nature responds to that? By sending out gardeners.
Birds are master tree planters.
Frugivores (the fruit eating ones) increase the size of forests just by pooping or puking out the seeds of their food. Add their huge flight range to that, and you’ve got a recipe for easy planting.
One bird in particular was noted for its effectiveness in tropical forests in a study:
“Hornbills are able to disperse 748 plant species… They are capable of dispersing seeds over several kilometers, resulting in a relatively even spread of seeds throughout the forest.”
9 species of Hornbills have been identified (so far) in the Philippines.
One of them, the Rufous Hornbill, was shot dead in Adams, Ilocos Norte just last March:
Wouldn’t you rather see one alive?
How bad is the disappearance of these built in gardeners?
Let’s just say we’re set to lose a lot more than just birds and trees.
In her research that involved 10 months of fieldwork across 500 km of Luzon’s forests to find their remaining population, Carmela Española from UP Diliman’s Institute of Biology said that:
“I express the concern that, without stricter species and site protection, a major collapse of frugivore communities may occur across Luzon with serious implications for ecosystem functioning.”
3. Our fortune telling skills are getting rusty
Birds can tell the future. Sort of.
In ancient Rome, leaders would first consult Augurs (or prophets) before making major political or military decisions. These Augurs based their prophecies by observing the behavior of birds or by carving them up isaw-style.
Turns out, they may have been on to something.
In 2001, the Haribon Foundation identified 117 places in the Philippines where birds threatened with extinction could be found (called Important Bird Areas or IBAs).
Half a decade later came another study which identified the priority areas that, if protected, would result in the most environmenal benefits. All 117 IBAs were eventually included in their list of 228 key biodiversity areas.
What’s the connection?
The initial study on birds served as the first sign that there might be other things worth saving. This included mammals, reptiles, even fish and corals in the case of the Tubbataha Reef.
Even though they’re not exactly psychic (as far as we know), birds are well known environmental indicators.
This means that when the environment deteriorates, birds are among the most affected. And since all you need to study birds is a pair of eyes, a drop in their population is the most obvious warning you can get that something bad is about to go down.
Note: birds may not be as effective for finding lotto numbers or a lovelife.
4. No more extra rice
Here’s a slice of history I recently read that you might not hear often in China:
In 1958, Mao Zedong declared war on sparrows. Believing it was a pest, he ordered all citizens to exterminate every single one they see and it worked: nearly 1 billion sparrows are estimated to have been killed.
Now, if Mao was a birdwatcher (he wasn’t), he’d know that sparrows are voracious insect eaters.
What kind of insects? The kind that can ruin a country.
Shortly after naming sparrows public enemy #1, locusts and other grain-eating pests swarmed over China’s crops, destroying its supply of rice and other grains. This contributed towards the Great Famine that lasted until 1962 and led to 20 million people dying from starvation.
Fortunately, our understanding of birds has evolved since then. Like how killing them is probably a bad idea.
In the US, a family of Barn Owls is capable of eating more than 1,000 rats and other rodents in just three months. This helps sugarcane farmers prevent $30 million in damage that rats would’ve caused.
We may not have Barn Owls, but we do have several species of similar rat-eating crop-saving owls including its cousin, the Grass Owl.
So don’t forget to say thank you to a bird when reaching for that extra rice.
5. We’re losing bits of our culture
In Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses who inspired men to create master pieces of art. Homer called on muses several times in writing his Odyssey and Illiad epics (you know, Brad Pitt in sandals).
Now if Homer was in the Philippines, he would’ve just needed to find a bird.
Philippine culture is full of art inspired by birds. Take the classic origin story, Ang Alamat ni Malakas at Maganda.
The first man and woman emerged from a stalk of bamboo and found a fertile land which became the Philippines. But that wasn’t out of luck, it was a bird, a Haring Ibon, that cracked open the bamboo and showed them where to go.
Down from the Maranao of Mindanao came the Sarimanok, whose legendary colors are symbols of prosperity. Then you have the Ibong Adarna, whose claim to fame (besides its superpowerered poop) is a song that can cure all sickness.
Judging by what those mythological birds represent, it seems that their importance has long been known in the Philippines after all.
So which among the following local birds would you give the “Most Likely to Inspire a Masterpiece” award to?
Whether which birds had a hand (or a wing) in creating those legends may be unknown for now, but the fact that they played such significant roles must mean something.
The importance of birds goes well beyond the environment and it’s not just the birdwatchers who have something to lose.
The good news is, even without knowing exactly why, people know killing birds senselessly is wrong.
You may not see any of these reasons in comments online, but that may not necessarily be because of ignorance. The value of birds isn’t common sense yet, but at least we aren’t totally unaware of it either.
How do you think this problem could be solved?
If you want to help prevent more sensless killings and be part of the growing community of birdwatchers in the Philippines, visit the websites of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and the Haribon Foundation to sign up and join your first birdwatching trip.
Bonus: Going hunting in the Philippines isn’t such a good idea in the first place. Expect fines and jail time if you’re ever found guilty of killing, catching, buying, or selling wildlife under the Wildlife Act. It all depends on what you did, of course. The biggest punishment possible? 12 years in prison and a P1 million fine for killing a Philippine Eagle.
This post was written by volunteer nature lovers. If you think it was helpful, please consider sharing it on Facebook and Twitter to help raise awareness about the Philippine environment. You can also sign up with your email at the bottom of this page so you can be notified when new stories are sent in.