Avifaunal Research and Geographical Perspectives

By Steinberg, Michael K. | The Geographical Review, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Avifaunal Research and Geographical Perspectives


Steinberg, Michael K., The Geographical Review


Birds are geographical creatures. In fact, we can map connections between birds and politics, recreation, economics, global health, mythology, aviation, and even professional sports. In other words, birds are a pervasive presence in various geographies.

Birds have been symbols in past and present cultures. Ancient cultures considered some birds deities; modern nations and states elevate birds as national and international symbols (Houlihan 1987; Demarest 2004). Birds also make up a significant number of mascots for professional sporting teams in North America. Outdoor sports enthusiasts also spend literally tens of millions of dollars on activities such waterfowl hunting and bird-watching (Kerlinger, Payne, and Eubanks 1997; Vivanco 2001; Henderson 2005; Grado 2008). Although the end results of these two activities are seemingly disparate--dead birds versus live ones--both are driven by desire for and appreciation of birds.

Scholars in fields such as ornithology and biology conduct most of the bird-oriented research, but social scientists, particularly geographers, have made important contributions to avifaunal research. Ornithologists play a leading role regarding studies focused on avian genetics, evolutionary history, and behavior; however, these areas of inquiry cover only part of the overall research landscape related to birds. People profoundly influence bird evolution, bird behavior, bird genetics, and bird numbers. Humans hunt, watch, house, feed, or value birds based on cultural constructs such as beauty, power, pests, and food (Doughty 1975; Hobbs 2004; Steinberg 2008). And these constructs impact key biological research topics. Indeed, culturally influenced activities such as hunting or feeding birds certainly influence avian behavior, population size, disease transmission, and, over time, evolution (Yaukey 1996; Doughty and Fergus 2002).

This special issue of the Geographical Review highlights avian research conducted by geographers by examining such topics as cultural perception of specific birds, bird conservation and population trends, human impacts on birds through habitat alteration, and bird exploitation in a variety of cultural and historical contexts. But the issue is not intended merely to highlight current research; its purpose is also to stake a claim in avifaunal research for geographers and by doing so also point to the potential for other research to be led by geographers. Can anyone argue that topics such as the diffusion of global disease, often with birds as vectors, or the role played by birds in ecotourism does not fall squarely within the realm of geography (Donaldson and Wood 2008)? This special issue is informally divided into two sections: the first is more cultural and human-environment-oriented; the second focuses on bird biogeography. Given our discipline's long research traditions in cultural, human-environmental, and biological geography, I think this division is appropriate.

Being geographers instead of ornithologists influences how we contextualize birds and overall avian research. We often see birds at different scales than ornithologists do: as part of a larger human-environmental landscape, whose presence and status are greatly influenced by history, politics, economics, and, of course, local culture. Thus geographical research focused on birds often provides a broader, more complete portrait of birds in and part of a landscape, not simply birds as single units in an ecosystem.

The material in this issue is important because, as humans continue to alter the natural world on an unprecedented scale, geographers and our often interdisciplinary research approach can and will shed light on the underlying, often diverse causes of environmental degradation. …

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