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Blane Klemek column: Study of birds has long, rich history

If you pick a species, any species, be it floral or faunal, one can easily become a specialist in the organism or organisms of his or her desire. There are entomologists, ichthyologists, paleontologists, mammalogists, primatologists, botanists, limnologists, ecologists and biologists.

As well, there are herpetologists, parasitologists, zoologists, protozologists, microbiologists, and, if you want to study butterflies and moths, you can be a lepidopterologist. Indeed, made possible by virtue of the endless wonders of Nature, such fields of study exist because of humankind's hunger to understand and learn.

In ornithology, or in other words, the study of birds, our fascination of feathered creatures has a long and rich history. With more than 9,600 incredibly diverse avian species found the world over, it's no surprise that people are so drawn to birds.

In a 1979 National Geographic magazine article about the mysteries of bird migration, author A.C. Fisher wrote: "In my hand I held the most remarkable of all living things, a creature of astounding abilities that elude our understanding, of extraordinary, even bizarre senses, of stamina and endurance far surpassing anything else in the animal world. Yet my captive measured a mere five inches in length and weighed less than half an ounce, about the weight of a fifty-cent piece. I held that truly awesome enigma, a bird."

In just three eloquently written sentences, Fisher captured not only a bird, but the very essence of an impassioned relationship between humanity and bird that has endured through all of human history and is as strong today as it was in the beginning.

Humanity's enchantment for birds has likely remained virtually unchanged since humans and birds began sharing the earth so very long ago. While our understanding of birds -- their taxonomic classification, behavior, physiology, biology, flight dynamics, habitat requirements and so on -- is undoubtedly superior from what early humankind could have possibly known in the sunrise of our own existence, our connection to birds has nevertheless been constant and unending.

Birds have long been portrayed symbolically in artworks, as religious symbols symbolizing peace, love and war, and they appear in countless musical scores, plays, poems, stories, myths and legends. According to Frank B. Gill, author of "Ornithology" (Second Edition), Paleolithic cave paintings of birds in France and Spain date back to 14,000 B.C. Other paintings of birds appear 8,000 years later in Turkish caves and inside 2000 B.C. Egyptian tombs.

As symbols, birds, particularly doves, represent peace and love in many cultures and religions. In Islam, the dove is believed to call human worshipers to prayer. And in Christianity, doves represent the Holy Spirit as well as having a close affinity with the Virgin Mary.

Birds are the subjects of study and doubly serves as a resource. Birds are hunted or raised for their meat, feathers and eggs. Some birds, as in hawks and other raptors, have long been utilized in sport, as in what is now known as falconry, to assist humans in attaining fresh meat. Falconry has its origins in the Middle Ages of Europe some 4,000 years ago. And the domestication of birds, such as turkeys, waterfowl and poultry, occurred a long time ago as well. Domestic chickens can be traced as far back as in 3000 BC India. The domestication of mallard ducks and geese first occurred by 1000 BC.

It was an obvious ascension that birds became the focus of study and the development of careers for captivated human beings wishing to learn more about the remarkable creatures. While published works of bird illustrations exist from the 1400s, it wasn't until the 1800s that such artists and naturalists as John J. Audubon, Mark Catesby, and Thomas Bewick reached prominence through their observations and masterful works. Audubon published his mammoth four-volume set of the much-revered "Birds of America" in 1827-1830, a work that was rich with prose, descriptive text and commanding artistry.

Field guidebooks later became popularized in the 1900s by such artists/naturalists as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Archibald Thorburn and Roger Tory Peterson. Even today, with as much accrued knowledge of birds that exists, new field guides are still being written, illustrated and published by many others. Recent works by David Allen Sibley are hugely popular with birders as are those written by Minnesota's own Stan Tekiela.

Ornithology has evolved because of the compilation of years of work and observation by dedicated researchers, scientists, naturalists and birders, and by those otherwise interested in birds and the environment in which they live and share with us.

As such, society has benefited from the study of birds. The origin and evolution of behavior and the discovery of B vitamin's role in nutrition are just two examples of contemporary ornithology. Other discoveries include the link of viruses to cancer, possible treatments for human deafness, answers to navigational mysteries, and a host of ecological findings as a result of studying the effects and consequences of introduced and exotic species, forestry and agricultural practices, weather phenomena, synthetic chemicals and human development.

It's amazing when you think about it. Perhaps humankind would have never mastered travel by air if not for the existence of birds. We really owe a great deal to them -- the least of which is a deeper appreciation (or to become an ornithologist!) and reasons galore as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at