North America's migratory birds are in 'real trouble,' report finds

The melodic chorus of diminutive migratory birds that fills the Canadian Prairies every spring is quieting as feathered characters such as the Sprague's pipit become increasingly rare on the northern Plains.

Scientists, policy-makers from Canada, U.S., Mexico talk bird conservation at 100th annual meeting

A chestnut-sided warbler eats a grub in Manitoba in 2009. (Stuart McKay)
The melodic chorus of diminutive migratory birds that fills the Canadian Prairies every spring is quieting as feathered characters such as the Sprague's pipit become increasingly rare on the northern Plains.
The Sprague's pipit is a migratory grassland bird species of global, federal and provincial concern in Canada's prairies. (Christian Artuso)

But a group of scientists calling for international action still hope we can turn back the clock and "bring all of that biodiversity with us into the future."

"These birds link us, they unite us, and we have a joint and shared reasonability towards them and toward the environments they are intimately tied in with, so it requires an [international] collaboration," said Christian Artuso, a biologist with Bird Studies Canada and director of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas. 

"This will come back to bite us if we don't deal with it while we still have a chance."

The shrinking native grasslands that Sprague's pipits shack up in every summer belong to a group of threatened ecosystems flagged in a massive new report released Wednesday on the state of North America's imperilled bird populations. The report says one-third of the roughly 350 migratory bird species across the continent are approaching extinction at an unsettling pace.

Flocks of policy-makers, non-profit organization representatives and scientists migrated to the nation's capital this week to discuss the report's findings and how to bolster conservation efforts across borders.

The Trilateral Committee for Wildlife Ecosystem and Management was held in Ottawa and marked the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Birds Convention. The convention brought conservation biologists and government officials from Mexico, the U.S. and Canada together just days after International Migratory Bird Day.

The first trilateral meeting took place in the middle of the First World War, when the Canada-United States Migratory Birds Convention was signed (Mexico signed on 20 years later). 

'Spread our wings beyond our own nests'

"Canada, the United States and Mexico share an amazing wealth of birds. And not one of them carries a passport. They know what they need, and where to find it," federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said in a statement. "Partnerships like this allow us to 'spread our wings' beyond our own nests."
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on April 19. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

As is the case today, the committee met in 1916 to discuss conservation issues, including perceived declines in bird populations and their causes.

But much has changed since then.

For one, some bird species that weren't doing well in the early 1900s have rebounded due to conservation efforts. As a group, ducks are doing much better than they were, thanks in large part to initiatives such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and wetland preservation policy helped along by avid game and subsistence duck hunters.

A male wood duck dries its wings on the edge of the Ottawa River. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
A species like the wood duck is doing particularly great, but it wasn't always that way. It's one of the most abundant waterfowl species in some parts of Canada now, but that's only because intergovernmental actions were taken to rescue the population after it was nearly driven to extinction through market hunting and habitat loss.

Hawks, eagles and other birds of prey also experienced broad scale increases due to conservation projects across the continent.

Battle to protect birds ongoing

Other migratory bird groups — oceanic birds, tropical forest birds, song birds and grassland birds like the Sprague's pipit — are in "real trouble," but Artuso and his peers say they hope the committee can help change that.
(Report on the State of North America's Birds)

About 60 per cent of all Sprague's pipits breed in Canada's native grasslands in the summer — a habitat that is disappearing due to development on the Prairies. The state of its winter home in Mexico is just as important to the species' fate.

"The battle to protect migratory birds is ongoing," Artuso said. "Whatever we do in Canada will be ineffective unless that is equalled in the wintering grounds, and vice versa."

1st report of its kind

The "Status of North America's Birds" report represents the first comprehensive assessment of birds across the continent.

While it features a few comeback stories of species brought back from the brink, the effects of climate change, development and habitat destruction have made for mass declines over past decades and are jeopardizing bird diversity across the continent.

We've already lost some species along the way.… Let's not lose anymore. It's not necessary if we work at this.- Christian Artuso

"The report paints a troubling picture," McKenna said. "There is no single reason for the decline in our bird populations. They range from habitat loss and pesticides to global climate change."

Charles Francis, manager of bird population monitoring with the Canadian Wildlife Service, said while the report presents some alarming findings, the purpose was also to inspire change.

"We did not want to have a report that said, 'There's disasters everywhere; we need to fix it' without providing solutions, and without providing evidence that if we put our minds together and work on those solutions we can actually achieve success," he said.

Hope amid 'declines and declines'

Effectively monitoring changes in migratory bird numbers and communicating findings with each other come with challenges, but the trilateral meeting is meant to help scientists recalibrate and align their wildlife management strategies as new data pours in.
Once one of the most common forest birds in eastern North America, the wood thrush has decreased by almost 70% in the last 40 years. Wood thrushes and many warblers breed in Canada's forests, but winter in tropical forests of Mexico that are threatened by logging. ((Isaac Sanchez))

"The thing about migratory birds is they connect us. What we do up here in Canada affects what goes on down in the southern U.S. and Mexico and even further beyond, throughout the whole hemisphere," Artuso said, adding as our footprint increases in North America, so to do the problems of migratory birds.

"All the more reason why we take a big picture perspective and look at where there are opportunities to make gains."
Biologist, birder and wildlife photographer Christian Artuso is the co-ordinator of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas and works for Birds Studies Canada. (Christian Artuso)

Artuso said while the situation is dire and bird conservation talk is often one of "declines and declines and declines," he also hopes the report will influence policy and minds.

"I know that many people, rightly so, are worried about things like health care and other priorities, but I believe we have to take care of our environment for our own health and our long-term health and the health of our great-great-great-grandchildren," he said. "We've already lost some species along the way.… Let's not lose anymore. It's not necessary if we work at this."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.