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Birds have adapted to human activities for thousands of years

Between 14,500 to 10,500 years ago, during the transition from the last Ice Age, early humans in the wetlands of eastern Jordan inadvertently created conditions that encouraged birds to stay rather than migrate. 

This revelation challenges the notion that human influence on the environment is inherently negative. Instead, it illustrates how human interaction with ecosystems can promote biodiversity by enabling different species to thrive together.

A new perspective 

Traditionally, human impact on natural habitats has been viewed through a lens of destruction and biodiversity loss. However, this research presents a different narrative.

Study lead author Lisa Yeomans is a zooarchaeologist at the University of Copenhagen

“The ecosystem in question is the Shubayqa wetlands of eastern Jordan that is now only seasonally flooded,” said Yeomans. “But recent evidence has shown that water was likely available through much of the year, and therefore it was also possible for waterfowl and other species to exist there all year round if they had a suitable habitat.”

Suitable ecological niches

The research at Shubayqa revealed that the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic peoples’ engagement with the wetlands, through harvesting vegetation and utilizing waterfowl resources, created a year-round habitat for these birds.

“The presence of eggshells and bones of juvenile ducks and swans in the archaeological record indicates that these birds did indeed remain year-round to breed in the wetlands instead of returning to Europe,” said Yeomans.

“We know that the modern descendants of these birds can stay and breed in the region, but only if the environment is suitable for them, and we think that human management of the wetland vegetation did provide suitable ecological niches for them through harvest of the vegetation.”

Modified habitats

This period marks a pivotal point in human history, with communities on the verge of transitioning to agriculture. The study suggests that modifications to environments like those seen in the Shubayqa wetlands could have been a critical factor in the development of agricultural practices.

“We know that agriculture developed in this region not long after these cultures, and we suggest that intentional management of wetlands was an important stage in this process,” said study co-author Camilla Mazzucato, an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen.

“The effort taken to alter the wetlands paid off in that it afforded improved foraging opportunities in terms of waterfowl, eggs, and feathers.”

Study significance 

The research underscores the importance of recognizing the role humans and other species play in shaping their environments. This collaborative shaping of habitats, the researchers argue, was instrumental in sparking innovations that eventually led to the advent of agriculture.

The study not only expands our understanding of early human-environment interactions but also invites a reevaluation of the impact of human activity on biodiversity. Under certain conditions, humans and nature can coexist in a way that benefits both.

How birds adapt

Birds have a remarkable ability to adapt to the pressure of human activities and urban environments in various ways. Many species have adjusted their feeding habits, nesting locations, and even their song patterns in response to the changes brought about by human expansion and urbanization.

Feeding habits

One of the most visible adaptations is in their feeding habits. Birds such as pigeons, sparrows, and gulls have become adept at scavenging food from waste generated by humans. They often congregate in urban areas where food waste is abundant. 

Some species have even learned to recognize and use traffic patterns to their advantage. For example, crows have been observed dropping nuts on roads for cars to crack open. They wait for traffic to stop before retrieving the food.

Nesting behaviors 

Nesting behaviors have also evolved in response to urban environments. Birds like peregrine falcons, traditionally cliff nesters, have taken to high-rise buildings as suitable substitutes for cliffs. They build nests on ledges and under bridges. 

Similarly, house sparrows and starlings often nest in roof spaces and building crevices, taking advantage of the shelter provided by human structures.

Communication methods

Moreover, birds have adapted their communication methods in urban environments. Many bird species, such as the European robin and the blackbird, have altered their song patterns in cities. 

These changes include singing at higher pitches, at louder volumes, or during quieter periods of the day, such as nighttime, to avoid the noise pollution that can drown out their calls during the day.

Tolerance for humans

Furthermore, some birds have developed a tolerance or even an attraction to human presence. Urban parks and gardens often play host to a variety of bird species that have become accustomed to humans and may even approach them for food. This demonstrates a significant shift in behavior compared to their more cautious rural counterparts.

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