Canada’s Best Opportunity to Conserve Birds is to Conserve the Boreal Forest



By Jeff Wells

June 20, 2019 | National Audubon Society

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A new report called The State of Canada’s Birds 2019 shows that Canada, including its beloved birds, is not immune to the global biodiversity crisis. There are massive declines in bird populations occurring across many Canadian bird species—in fact the report indicates that at least 115 species are known to be showing long-term declines.

But the report also confirms that conservation and international cooperation can reverse declines in bird populations. Smart government policies like banning DDT and investing in wetlands restoration across Canada and the United States, for instance, have helped duck populations increase by 69% and geese by a whopping 360%.

The majority of Canada’s birds migrate south for the winter, some as far south as the tip of South America. Bringing back bird populations will require long-term cooperative efforts across many nations, especially Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, but ultimately with all nations of the Western Hemisphere.

Yet because the Boreal Forest serves as the nesting grounds for billions of migrating birds, Canada has a special responsibility to combat the global biodiversity crisis. It also has a giant opportunity. As home to the largest intact forest left on the planet and the bird nursery for the continent, it can conserve bird habitat at a grand scale.

But as the State of Canada’s Bird report shows, it has to act now, before it’s too late.

The report groups species by habitat and behavior and then calculates an average percent change for each group with the idea that this provides an indicator of the status of the habitat and/or the species group. You might think of it a bit like one of the standard stock market measures like the S&P 500, Dow Jones, or Nasdaq. Each of these stock market indicators follows the average trends in pricing of a portfolio of company stocks. One stock in the portfolio may decline heavily in value but if some others increase greatly in value, the index may be stable or show an overall upward trend.

The same is true when developing bird population status indicators that group species together with similar habitat requirements or behaviors. The State of Canada’s Birds 2019 showed that an indicator based on populations of ducks and geese had increased by 150% since 1970 and one for birds of prey by 110%. Both of these groups benefitted by changes in government policies and focused attention and funding beginning in the 1970’s and 1980.

For birds of prey and some waterbirds, the banning of DDT was a primary factor in allowing populations to recover from historic lows. Ospreys, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons are well known examples of species that have shown a remarkable recovery over the last 30-40 years once freed from the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT. In the case of waterfowl, a major concerted effort to protect and restore wetlands has taken place jointly between Canada and the U.S. with billions of dollars committed that has resulted in many millions of hectares of wetlands that support ducks and geese.

Sadly, there are many other indicators in the report that paint a more dismal picture of the state of Canada’s birds. A shorebird indicator shows an average decline of 40%, one for grassland birds a 57% decline and one for aerial insectivores (species that catch insects in flight) a whopping 59% drop. The report also point out that as many as a quarter of Canada’s bird species are poorly monitored so we don’t even know if they are doing poorly or well.

One problem with some indicators is that they can lump together species into such broad categories that it is unclear how to interpret a decline or rise. For this report, the report’s authors lumped together 137 species into an indicator that they considered representative of forest birds.

Unfortunately, many so called “forest” birds have very different habitat specificities within the broad definition of a forest. Some species only occur in habitats dominated by coniferous trees like spruces and pines. Others prefer deciduous forests with trees like maples and oaks. Some bird species are only found in very young forests while others are only found in old forests.

The report showed a 6% increase in the forest bird indicator overall but with a decline of 31% in an indicator of forest bird species wintering in South America (most of which are boreal forest breeding species). They report a 39% decline in an indicator of what they called “forest crop specialists” meaning boreal forest species like evening grosbeak that feed on seeds and nuts of the forest.

We know that billions of birds rely on the boreal. That’s why Canada’s largest responsibility and opportunity to combat the global biodiversity crisis is to rapidly increase the amount of its largest biome—the Boreal Forest—under conservation protection. This month, Environment Climate Change Canada is deciding on a set of protected areas proposals that, once funded, could help Canada meet its goal of protecting 17% of lands by 2020. The most ambitious proposals for making conservation gains come from Indigenous Nations.

To fulfill its stewardship responsibility to the world, including its birds and other biodiversity, Canada should make it a priority to provide funding to the proposals from Indigenous governments and communities for very large protected landscapes across the Boreal Forest biome.


Photo Credit: Peter Mather