The Birds and The Bees: How Pollination Serves Us

Wednesday, February 19, 2020
There are many ecosystem services provided to us by wild species. It is important for us to realize the give and take involved in the symbiotic relationships we share with our natural environment. If ecosystems are functioning optimally, we have many benefits to gain from environments and the species that inhabit them. Bees are important pollinators, but birds can be as well. Birds that we see during summer months such as our beloved Baltimore Orioles and hummingbirds serve to pollinate nectar plants in their overwintering grounds as well as a variety of wildflower species here. The role that birds play in global pollination benefits us directly, with about 5% of the plants that humans use for food and medicine being pollinated by birds. Further, bird pollination is incredibly important to many species of plants, which are threatened with extinction without this important service.

Photo by: Leanne LeBlanc

Ornithophily is the specific term used to describe pollination that is carried out by birds.

"Bird flowers", or flowers that are adapted to attracting bird pollinators are usually odourless, as birds have a poor sense of smell. They tend to be brightly coloured featuring primarily red, orange and yellow- these colours are seen best by bird species. Think about oriole and hummingbird feeders that are typically red and orange to attract these species- that is why! Bird flowers also are open during the day when birds are most active and possess strong supports for perching. Plants that bear typical "bird" flowers include cardinal flower, fuschias, hibiscus, eucalyptus and many members of the orchid, pea and pineapple families. Worldwide, there are about 2,000 pollinating bird species. Although there are no commercial North American crops that require bird pollination, we benefit from global crops that require this service such as papaya, nutmeg and bananas.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) feeding from a Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense)

In North America, birds primarily pollinate wildflowers which are important for ecosystems to thrive. 
Because of the important role that pollinating species play in our global ecosystems and food supply, we need to work to protect them. Pollinators currently face threats from habitat loss, pesticide use, agricultural practices and our changing climate.

Individually, we can reduce our personal use of pesticides on our own properties and plant flowers that attract and maintain pollinating species. Species such as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Orioles and Monarch butterflies that we marvel at during spring and summer months not only pollinate wildflowers here but serve important roles in their overwintering grounds as well. Supporting these species contributes to global ecosystems as these species travel such long distances over the course of a calendar year and occupy such large ranges.

There are endless ways in which we are intrinsically connected with the natural world and the services it provides us. Thriving ecosystems aid us in thriving, as well as the other species that need them.

A bird has likely done something for you today, somewhere in the world. What have you done for them?



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