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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Society has benefited greatly from the study of birds

With over 9,600 species found throughout the world, there are plenty of birds to study and observe.

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A chipping sparrow catches a grasshopper in its mouth to feed to its babies waiting in a nearby nest on July 26, 2022, at the Bemidji Town and Country Club.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The word biology means, simply, the study of life. Whereas the study of birds, which comes from the late 16th-century Latin word, “ornithologia,” means "bird science."

Indeed, with over 9,600 species found throughout the world, there are plenty of birds to study and observe.

While our contemporary understanding of birds — their taxonomic classification, behavior, physiology, flight dynamics, habitat requirements and so on — surpasses what early humankind could have possibly known, our fascination with birds and our connection to these extraordinary creatures have 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," Paleolithic cave paintings of birds in France and Spain date back to 14,000 BC. Other paintings of birds appear 8,000 years later in Turkish caves and inside 2000 BC Egyptian tombs.


As symbols, birds, especially 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 have a close affinity with the Virgin Mary. Birds are also very important to Native American culture and spirituality.

Birds are the subjects of study and doubly serve as a resource. Birds are hunted or raised for their meat, feathers and eggs. Some birds, such as 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 4000 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 ge
ese 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 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 very 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, birders and those otherwise interested in birds and the environment in which they live and share with us.

As such, society has benefited greatly from the study of birds. The origin and evolution of behavior and the discovery of B vitamins’ 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 flight if not for the existence of birds.

We really owe a great deal to them — the least of which is a deeper appreciation, respect and tireless advocates for their perpetual conservation and care, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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