British Columbia

Why protecting hummingbirds could help protect other species in B.C.

Surrogate species are used by conservationists to monitor what's going on throughout an entire landscape, what the fate of other species may be and where to focus conservation efforts.

Rufous hummingbirds identified as a top surrogate species, an indicator for the landscape at large

A male rufous hummingbird guards a feeder in Nanaimo, B.C. (Don Easton)

While it might not be the most well known creature in B.C., the rufous hummingbird — a feisty little bird common around much of the province — could be the key to protecting many other species, according to two UBC biologists. 

Research from Adam Ford and Sarah Falconer featured in this month's edition of National Geographic looks at the best indicator, or surrogate, species in B.C. These are plants and animals that conservationists use to monitor what's going on throughout an entire landscape, what the fate of other species may be and where to focus conservation efforts.

In particular, Ford and Falconer wanted to know which lesser known, or less popular, species would top that list. 

Along with the rufous hummingbird, they identified the tree swallow, barn swallow and long-tailed weasel as "elite" surrogate species. As for larger animals, or megafauna, they found that grizzly bears, wolves, mule deer and elk make for good surrogate species candidates. 

"The charismatic megafauna, the grizzly bears and the wolves, they get a lot of our attention," Ford told CBC On the Island host Gregor Craigie. 

"Those species are worth our attention, but they're not worth all of our attention."

Ford and Falconer's impetus for the study came out of concern that conservation efforts lead to a small proportion of species getting a lot of attention. They wanted to compare those "charismatic" species to lesser known species that are considered important in British Columbia.

A juvenile male rufous hummingbird near a feeder. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"It's hard for conservationists to protect everything. People that are interested in conserving wildlife and other forms of nature have to be a little bit choosy," Ford said.

"We don't have enough money or resources to do everything for everybody."

Long-tailed weasels are considered an excellent indicator species in B.C.

They used data from the B.C. government about species in the province, their status and some habitat features they like to use, and then looked for overlaps between 1,012 different candidate species. Whichever species overlapped best was considered the best surrogate species, or had the best surrogacy value. 

"It was an exciting finding to just look at those assumptions about who is the best canary in the coal mine," Ford said. 

Tree swallows have been identified as an 'elite' surrogate species in B.C. by a pair of UBC researchers. (Submitted by Lucas Berrigan)

He hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic has led people to spend more time outside identifying wildlife, and that they have become more aware of the different species in the province, so that they'll ultimately get more attention and funding from conservation efforts. 

"My hope is that, you know, people have a deeper appreciation for some of the animals that are in their local environment," he said. 

"Hopefully they're encountering some of these species and getting more curious about them, looking them up in their bird book and, you know, having that sort of healthy interaction with wildlife."

With files from On the Island

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