Sask. birds help answer bigger questions about the environment

Migratory birds that pass through Saskatchewan are usually long gone to warmer, more tropical lands by the time winter turns the province icy and cold.

U of S researchers are investigating the impacts of pesticides and oil on birds

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are currently studying three bird species at the new $2.1-million Facility of Applied Avian Research. (Submitted by Christy Morrissey)

Migratory birds that pass through Saskatchewan are usually long gone to warmer, more tropical lands by the time winter turns the province icy and cold. 

But this year some will be staying behind to help researchers answer important questions about birds and the health of the environment.

The new $2.1 million Facility of Applied Avian Research at the University of Saskatchewan is one of two facilities of its kind in Canada, and the only one in western Canada. 

U of S wildlife ecotoxicologist, Christy Morrissey, said it was ideally located because Saskatoon sits in the path of one of four migratory bird "flyways" in North America.

Birds a barometer of environment's health

She said studying the health of bird populations was a good indicator of how an environment was performing, as birds are present in all types of climates. 

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"There is a bird that's adapted to each of those environments and if it's doing well it tells us something that that environment is also, you know, healthy," said Morrissey. 

"If they're not doing well, we can assume that there probably is some problem there." 

The facility is currently studying three types of birds: the white-crowned sparrow, the European starling and a shorebird known as a sanderling. 

Christy Morrissey is a wildlife ecotoxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Christy Morrissey)

Researchers are currently looking into how agricultural pesticides are impacting the white-crowned sparrow. 

The centre is also investigating the impacts of toxic substances in oil on migratory shorebirds travelling north from South and Central America to the Arctic. 

Timely research

Morrissey said the project was already underway when the Husky oil spill leaked more than 200,000 litres of oil into the North Saskatchewan River. 

The new $2.1-million Facility for Applied Avian Research can simulate different climates to house a range of species. (Submitted by Christy Morrissey)

"We're studying the ability for those birds to put on fat to fuel their journey, because we believe those chemicals, the PAHs, that you find in oil that linger for a very, very long time in the environment, long after the oil or the spill or the slick is gone, can impact the bird's ability to put on fat," she said. 

The new building has the capacity to create individual climates for different bird species. 

Morrissey said the researchers took great care in selecting and catching wild birds to study. 

"We're not interested in harming the population so we bring in a very small number of birds that you can study at great depth, and so we try to pick common species that are representative of a larger group," she said.