Since I was a little boy, I loved nature and decided to study biology because it was my calling. I chose to specialize in birds. Why? Because birds are wonderful. They share with us with their amazing colors and songs and we admire their ability to fly. Birds inspire us with their beauty, and the way they move freely conquering the sky—it is why we have admired birds since ancient times. A proof of that is the mention of birds as a special group to be conserved by Noah, recorded in the book of Genesis: “Also take seven pairs of every kind of bird with you. Do this so there will always be animals and birds on the earth.” (Genesis 7:3) Even Jesus told to look at the birds and learn from them! (Matthew 6:26)
As a researcher and educator, I can testify how birds are a wonderful way to discover the secrets of nature and the adaptation of living beings. Just by going out and birdwatching, we can enjoy playing detectives. What is the bird’s name? Where does it live? How does it survive and get food? They even inspire poets, such as Emily Dickinson, who captures in a few words, what most of us who love birds would like to say about the “thing with feathers.”1 Through observation of these birds and their habitats, we can see both the beauty of these creatures and also the need for their conservation.
Understanding Birds and their Role
Birds help us understand nature and its processes. The finches that Charles Darwin found in the Galapagos gave him the concepts of natural selection and evolution. Didn’t God create the birds? Yes, He did. And I do not think that the large diversity of our feathery animals could be explained without evolution. I even endorsed a book that explains the evolutionary origin of birds.2 Birds show me the intricate variety of evolutionary creation.
I am a biologist motivated by faith that does research and conservation, helping an organization that does what all Christians should be doing: nature conservation.
Another researcher named Robert McArthur used warblers to learn about the relationship between living beings and their environment. By careful observation of the warblers in the forests, McArthur noticed that birds share resources with each other, as an alternative to competition. This concept is known as resource partitioning, something that we can see in almost every living being when we analyze its position in an ecological community.3 In the 1970s, John Terborgh used birds to explain how species are distributed in the tropical Andes. Using his data, we were able to theorize and model how climate change might affect birds.4 My doctoral research dealt with the ecology of hummingbirds in the Andes. These birds are highly specialized nectarivores, so they rely heavily on floral resources. By studying their selection of certain types of plants, we discovered that the phenological match between birds and flowering plants was important in explaining the structure of their interactions.5
Unfortunately, many species of birds are endangered. We, as humans, have neglected our role as stewards of the Earth and wiped out some entire bird species.
The dodo bird, a turkey-like bird that we now know was closer to a pigeon, was eliminated by greed, evil, and mismanagement of the land where they used to live, in the 17th century. Many other birds have received the same fate—and not necessarily the rare and endemic ones in faraway territories. More than a hundred years ago, a pigeon used to fly in migrations that clouded the sun in the southeast United States: the passenger pigeon. Back then, it would have been unthinkable to even consider that this bird would become extinct. But it did. By destroying the forests where this species used to nest and excessive hunting, we eliminated this pigeon from the Earth in 1919.
We might think that extinction of this magnitude a thing of the past, that we are better now in caring for our environment and our birds. Not so. A recent article published by the journal Science, tells us that in North America, the breeding population of all bird species has declined by 30% in these last 40 years.6
Bird Migration in the Americas
It is sad to know that several birds that used to be common or rare are now gone, and even those around us today could soon be gone. Migratory birds are one group that could face extinction if we do not care for them and their habitats. Birds flying in large numbers, coming and going, leaving and returning, were considered by the prophet Jeremiah to make a statement: “The dove, stork… know their times, know when to come back. But you, my people, do not know my laws” (Jeremiah 8:7). It would be unlikely that Jeremiah was trying to make a statement on bird migration here. He was using the common knowledge of bird migration to illustrate a point: Just as the birds leave but come back, we should also come back to the Lord if we have gone astray.
We can see this process in several birds that visit our gardens, beaches or wetlands. Several birds that live in Canada and the United States migrate to the south—some just to Mexico, and some to the southern parts of Chile. They might use different routes: crossing the Amazon and staying in the Argentinian Pampas; or hopping the wetlands and beaches along the coast of the Pacific Ocean in western America.
I was blessed to be born in a mega-diverse country in South America in the neotropical region where I can appreciate these birds, along with the native ones. It has been described as an “Eden” because of the lush nature.
My first formal contact with these migrant birds was in Pisco, Peru. As a biology undergraduate of a university in Lima, I volunteered to go there, where I was trained in bird recognition and bird banding (this is where we add bands to the legs of the birds to trace their migratory routes). I was with a group of biology students that later formed the Grupo Aves del Peru (GAP).7 This area of the Peruvian coast is famous because is a historical site dealing with Peru’s independence from Spain in the 19th century. It has wetlands close to the river that are also named Pisco. Paracas National Reservation8 is also nearby. This reservation is a land of wetlands that are protected by the Peruvian government and also a Ramsar site (Title that means that is a very important place for migrant birds, biodiversity, or cultural use). It is a home or stopover for 216 different species of birds.
In Pisco and Paracas, it is possible to admire a large diversity of birds that are adapted to the wetlands. The color of the beautiful flamingoes, as a Peruvian legend counts, inspired liberator Jose de San Martin to propose the Peruvian flag: the red-white-red pattern. Their unique beak seems to be smiling and the famous bird illustrator of the 19th century, Audubon, made a mistake in painting the bird in a position that would be impossible. Stephen Jay Gould reported that specific adaptation of the flamingo, feeding upside down that modified its mouth, in his book, The Flamingo Smile.9 The beak of the flamingo has an interesting adaptation for filtering to harvest the small invertebrates that can be found in the mudflats. There are flamingos in several wetlands of the world. The ones in Pisco migrate within South America, from the Andes and also from the south. Their exact migration routes are still under research.
In my current role as a biologist, I have been doing research not only on migrant birds but on all sorts of winged fellows in forests, the high Andes, and deserts. Counting birds is a hobby that can be transformed into a profession (ornithologist), and also form communities of citizens and scientists. Literally anybody could be helping science to develop by recording birds and sharing that information on the web. A popular platform where amateur ornithologists can share their sightings and information is eBird (www.ebird.org).
Creation Care and Conservation
GAP, the institution that helped me to learn and love birds, is still active in the conservation of birds and their habitats. That is creation care. It’s the conservation of nature in action. GAP is not a faith-based institution. I am a biologist motivated by faith that does research and conservation, helping an organization that does what all Christians should be doing: nature conservation. I believe that we should be caring for the Earth that God gave us as His stewards. Our mission as Christians should be caring for God’s creation. That could be done individually,10 as a church, or by joining an institution that has in its aims to conserve nature. We also have good examples of Christian organizations that promote creation care, such as A Rocha, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and several others.
In the wetlands of Pisco, research goes on. We have identified up to 142 bird species, residents and migrants. Bird monitoring continues, by counting their population and recording reproduction of target species. We are working with the local schools in Pisco, local universities in the region, and authorities to protect this habitat for the birds. By organizing lectures, field trips, courses and research training we are creating conscience, and helping the ones that are ready to help in this common enterprise to protect the birds.
Here in Peru, I hope to accomplish at least part of what God wanted for all the birds “to conserve their species.” (Genesis 7:3)