CONSERVATION | International Migratory Bird Day

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The Osprey is a migratory raptor. It nests throughout British Columbia and much of the rest of Canada, and winters from the extreme southern US to South America. It eats mainly fish, which it catches by diving into water. Osprey populations were severely affected by certain pesticides, but have made a strong comeback as use of these chemicals has been banned or more tightly controlled. Photo: Guy L. Monty

By Jessica Kirby —

One of the first things Environment for the Americas (EFTA) will tell you about International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) is, “Bird Day is not just a day. Celebrate our migratory birds 365 days a year!”

A common sentiment among many awareness-day campaigners, the importance of celebrating a cause year round is not lost on migratory bird advocates who say habitats and subsequent species diversity is declining worldwide, mainly because of climate change and urbanization.

According to National Geographic, a National Audubon Society report titled, “Common Birds in Decline,” indicates several widespread species generally thought to be secure in numbers have decreased as much as 80 per cent since 1967. As many as 19 others have lost half their populations in the same time frame, says the report, and both sets of figures represent an array of threats faced by birds throughout North America.

The internationally recognized day, founded in 1993, celebrates bird migration and fosters bird conservation and education by introducing the public to the wild and fascinating world of migratory birds.

The event officially falls on the second Saturday in May for the US and Canada, and the second Saturday in October for Latin America and the Caribbean, but since birds don’t migrate on a single day, IMBD activities take place year round, across the globe, in conjunction with times and places when the birds are present and in abundance. Typically, IMBD is celebrated at more than 700 sites.

The theme for the 2015 event is Restore Habitat, Restore Birds, focused on the importance of preserving habitat, threats to bird habitats, elements on habitat on which birds depend, and how habitat restoration benefits birds.

Ken Rosenberg, scientist with the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology says, “The top three threats to birds overall are habitat loss, habitat loss, and habitat loss. We’re losing the battle acre by acre.”

A series of reports from US Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups titled, “State of the Birds,” indicate a downward trend for most natural bird habitats.

Grassland birds have declined approximately 40 per cent over the past four decades because of expansion of croplands, over grazing, and foreign species introduction. In the US, 13 per cent of grassland and pasture land is publicly owned, meaning a huge portion is under the control of private landowners, for whom conservation incentives are needed. The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), for instance, pays farmers to set land aside from agricultural production and convert it to environmentally valuable uses.

“The biggest factor in agricultural systems is changing commodity prices,” says Rosenberg. “With this big push to raise corn for ethanol production, just since 2008 we’ve lost 23 million acres that were in CRP and other farm-bill programs and have been converted back to crop production.”

The Osprey is a migratory raptor. It nests throughout British Columbia and much of the rest of Canada, and winters from the extreme southern US to South America. It eats mainly fish, which it catches by diving into water. Osprey populations were severely affected by certain pesticides, but have made a strong comeback as use of these chemicals has been banned or more tightly controlled. Photo: Guy L. Monty

The Say’s Phoebe is a type of flycatcher that nests throughout the interior of British Columbia and winters in the south western US and Mexico. This is a beneficial bird, as it eats many species of flying insects, and favours barns, corrals, and pastures for feeding, often perching on fence posts. Photo: Guy L. Monty

In Canada, the trends are similar, but for different reasons. The “State of Canada’s Birds” report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) draws on 40 years of data collected by professional and citizen scientists. The report says on average, Canadian bird populations have declined by 12 per cent since the 70s.

While some species are thriving in Canada, overall, 44 per cent are decreasing, compared with the 33 per cent that are increasing and 23 per cent showing little overall change. Grassland birds, migratory shorebirds, and aerial insectivores have all decreased by more than 40 per cent, and some individual species in these groups have declined by more than 90 per cent.

According to the report, “Wetlands are being drained, forests are being cleared, and native grasslands converted to cultivated crops. The tundra is threatened by climate change. Urban and industrial developments are replacing natural habitats. Roads, power lines, and pipelines dissect the landscape. Invasive species are spreading. Industrial chemicals and pesticides are released into the water and the air. Historically, excessive commercial harvest led to major declines in many bird populations: Passenger Pigeons, Great Auks, and Labrador Ducks all disappeared forever.”

Though habitat destruction is the most common threat to migratory birds, between 1.4 and 37 billion each year lose their lives to domestic cats, and millions more to collisions with skyscrapers, radio towers, and clear glass windows.

Wind turbines are another problem, more difficult to address because of their value as clean energy producers. With 440,000 birds killed each year, according to a 2009 statistic, sitting that minimizes collision potential becomes an important consideration that could mitigate the problem.

The American Bird Conservancy and other bird advocacy groups have proposed a series of recommendations that would keep wind turbines away from migration routes, wetlands, wildlife refuges, and other areas likely frequented by birds. America’s Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration are currently studying the design of communication towers to avoid the estimated six million birds killed each year by these structures.

On the brighter side, the past century has also seen significant progress in bird conservation. The Migratory Birds Convention between Canada and the US in 1916 allowed many species to recover because of better hunting controls, and over the past four decades, single-species conservation efforts, such as those focused on Whooping cranes, several raptors, and other species have helped improve and increase numbers.

But we need more.

According to advocacy group Boreal Birds Need Half (BBNH), North America’s boreal forests are the breeding ground for approximately three billion birds and most than 300 species between interior Alaska and the Atlantic Ocean.

Boreal Birds Need Half is founded on contemporary science that asserts at least half of an ecosystem should be protected from development to preserve its ecological health and biodiversity. The same science, recorded in a report by Boreal Songbird Initiative and Ducks Unlimited, recommends sustainable development in the remaining areas.

“Both protected areas and industrial activities should proceed only with the free, prior, and informed consent of affected Aboriginal communities,” says BBNH.

Visit www.borealbirdsneedhalf.org to view the report and to sign an endorsement that would encourage Canadian and US governments to implement large-scale forest conservation and sustainable development.

Bring International Migratory Bird Day to your Community

EFTA encourages local individual participation in IMBD events that share with participants the importance of habitat and explain and demonstrate examples of habitats in your community.

Consider viewing or otherwise studying birds in a diverse range of habitats and engage the public in a restoration project locally or abroad.

The Cariboo region is the meeting point for three of BC’s distinct geographical landscapes depended upon by migratory birds and other wildlife. Lush temperate rainforests in valleys and fjords of the coastal mountains to the west the open up to alpine peaks and tundra.

Rounded mountains with thick, coniferous forested areas are spread out with deep lakes between. Between the mountain ranges, a plateau of dry Lodge-pole pine and Douglas-fir forests and extensive grasslands make up the Fraser and Chilcotin river valleys.

Spring and fall are the best times to view migratory bird species in the Cariboo region. Lake, pond, and wetland habitats are thriving in these times, with migrants appearing as soon as holes develop in the ice. Southward migration of shorebirds can begin as early as July, while loons can usually be spotted well into October.

For a comprehensive list of easily accessible and more remote migratory bird viewing locations, please visit the Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection’s 2012 brochure titled, “Wildlife Viewing in the Cariboo Region” online at www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/wvcariboo.pdf

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