North

Decline in northern bird populations 'serious', say bird experts

A new report says 86 bird species in North America are now threatened by habitat destruction and climate change. 'Not everything is right with the planet,' says the director of the Yukon Bird Club.

Shrinking populations 'telling us that not everything is right with the planet.'

Rusty blackbirds are found in all of Canada's provinces and territories. According to Canada's species at risk public registry, the conversion of wetlands into farmland or land suitable for human habitation is the primary cause of rusty blackbird habitat loss, particularly in its wintering grounds. (Cameron Eckert)

A new report shows the results of the latest continental bird count are alarming, and birdwatchers say it's a dire situation even in the North.

The report from Partners In Flight, a coalition of conservation organizations, says 86 species in North America are now threatened by habitat destruction and climate change. 

'Birds are indicators of our ecosystem health. They tell us how the planet is doing, they tell us a story,' said Cameron Eckert, director of the Yukon Bird Club. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"It is serious," said Cameron Eckert, director of the Yukon Bird Club. "Birds are indicators of our ecosystem health. They tell us how the planet is doing, they tell us a story.

"And the decline in bird populations is telling us that not everything is right with the planet."

Northern species threatened

Eckert says a number of northern species are considered threatened.

"Right from small songbirds like the black poll warblers to short-eared owls, rusty blackbirds, and the eiders up north on our Arctic coast — they are also in decline."

For instance, the number of rusty blackbirds has dropped almost 90 per cent over the past 20 years. The short-eared owl population has declined by more than 20 per cent in a decade, and a third of bank swallows have disappeared over the same period of time.

Eckert says what's not clear is what's happened to them — they may have died off, or moved, or a combination of both.

The bank swallow was listed as a threatened species in Canada in 2013. According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), 98 per cent of its Canadian population has been lost over the past 40 years. (Cameron Eckert)

"So small differences, prompted by climate change, is really driving species into different areas or just out of a home altogether."

Protecting biodiversity hotspots

The situation isn't hopeless though, Eckert says.

He says more wetlands and biodiversity hotspots can be protected, but that has to happen right across the continent given the huge migratory span of many different bird species.

"Many species range anywhere from travelling a few hundred kilometres from their nesting and their wintering habitats, to travelling 10,000 or 15,000 kilometres," he said.

"So it's a landscape-level approach that requires protecting a suite of habitat that represents the diversity of species."

now