Nova Scotia a key stopping place for protecting North American birds

With more than a third of all bird species in North America facing significant population declines, Nova Scotia plays a key role in protecting the health of migrating bird species, says the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

'It's not just for Nova Scotia ... these birds link the Americas,' says conservation scientist Dan Kraus

There are about 50 pairs of plovers that visit Nova Scotia annually, but their numbers have been in decline. (Submitted/Bird Studies Canada)

With more than a third of all bird species in North America facing significant population declines, Nova Scotia plays a key role in protecting the health of migrating bird species, says the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The first State of North America's Birds report released this week found that of 1,154 bird species that live in and migrate among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, 432 are of "high concern" due to low or declining populations, shrinking ranges and threats such as human-caused habitat loss, invasive predators and climate change.

The report says the decline in bird numbers are particularly bad for species that either nest or fly through Atlantic Canada — primarily ocean birds and shoreline birds. 

"When we're protecting [birds] and their habitat, it's not just for Nova Scotia, it's not just for Canada, but these birds link the Americas," Dan Kraus, a conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, told CBC's Information Morning.

"The birds we have today in Nova Scotia may, in a few months, be up in the Arctic or the boreal forest and in the winter they'll be down in Mexico or the Caribbean countries."

Birds the proverbial 'canary in the coal mine'

Semipalmated sandpipers are a species of migratory shorebird that travels through Atlantic Canada. (Nature Canada)

Kraus said habitats of particular importance for migrating birds include the Bay of Fundy and Nova Scotia's South Shore.

"The Bay of Fundy is one of the world's hotspots for migrating shorebirds. It's one of the few places in the world you can stand in awe and look at hundreds of thousands of birds in one day," he said.

He says some birds fly thousands of kilometres and need a reliable place where they can stop, rest and feed before continuing their journey.

According to Kraus, birds are the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," acting as an indicator of the overall health of the environment.

Not all bad news for Nova Scotia birds

Ocean birds like northern gannets are among the most threatened, a new report suggests. Many that nest in Canada migrate to the Gulf of Mexico and were hard hit by an oil spill in 2010. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Kraus says Nova Scotia is bucking the bird survival trend and points to birds like the Atlantic puffin and the northern gannet as examples. 

"That's probably because of early efforts to protect their habitat, to protect the islands where they nest," he said.

However, coastal birds are a different story. Kraus says the piping plover and semipalmated sandpiper are on the watchlist and at risk of extinction if more isn't done.

He says the health of bird populations is directly linked to preserving habitat.

"If we don't have habitat, we can't protect those birds. They are facing other threats but if they don't have healthy habitat to breed, to feed, to stop during their migration, we're not going to be able to protect birds for future generations," said Kraus.

More than 12% of Nova Scotia protected

According to the province, there are currently more than 100 properties designated as wilderness areas, nature preserves and parks that protect a total of 12.26 per cent of Nova Scotia's landmass.

Canada, as of the end of 2014, had designated 10.3 per cent of the country's terrestrial area (land and freshwater), and 0.9 per cent of its marine territory as being protected areas.

Birds like Atlantic puffin (pictured) and northern gannet are not doing too badly in Nova Scotia. (Ronald O'Toole)

While birds may be nice to look at, Kraus says they also have a positive impact on the economy. 

"For example, birds in Canada's boreal forest provide over $5 billion a year in pest control services," said Kraus, giving the example of birds controlling the spruce budworm.

Natural Resources Canada calls the spruce budworm "one of the most damaging native insects affecting spruce and fir trees in the country."

Also, passionate birders even travel to see our feathered friends, resulting in tourism.

"Nova Scotia has opportunities where you can see birds in a number and a diversity that doesn't exist elsewhere in Canada," said Kraus.

About the Author

Cassie Williams

Reporter/Editor

Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. I live in Halifax. I can be reached at cassandra.williams@cbc.ca

With files from Information Morning