Grassland, shorebirds face deep declines

Once common species like the Barn Swallow, shown here, have declined to less than a quarter of their 1970 level. Photo credit: Nick Saunders


The barn swallows and chimney swifts that swoop through Canada’s skies devouring insects are in serious trouble, with populations down more than 75 per cent since 1970.

Shorebirds are also dis-appearing – their numbers are down by almost half, according to the first comprehensive report on the health of Canada’s birds, to be released Wednesday.

The news is not all bad. Eagles and other raptors have made dramatic recoveries thanks to bans on pesticides such as DDT.

And duck and geese populations are booming, says the report on the billions of birds that spend at least part of the year in Canada.

Overall the report says the country’s breeding bird populations have decreased by 12 per cent since 1970, when monitoring began for most of the 451 species of birds in Canada: 44 per cent of those species have decreased, 33 per cent have increased and 23 per cent have changed little.

Behind the numbers are some inspiring successes – like the recovery of the peregrine falcons – and “alarming” mysteries, like the steep declines in aerial insectivores such as swifts, nighthawks, whip-poor-wills and swallows.

“What concerns us most about this group is that we don’t understand what the cause of the decline is,” said Charles Francis, manager of species abundance and distribution at Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service.

Francis chaired the panel that produced the report for the Canadian arm of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. The panel also includes members from territorial and provincial governments and wildlife and conservation groups across Canada.

Francis says grassland birds – like meadowlarks, bobolinks and longspurs – that once were common across much of the country are down by more than 45 per cent since 1970 largely because of loss of natural habitat both in Canada and on the birds’ southern wintering grounds.

Disappearing shorebirds are another big concern, Francis told a media briefing on Tuesday, noting that the Arctic populations appeared to down a whopping 60 per cent.

Dave Howerter, national manager of Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research, said the country was “blessed” with plenty of wetlands which are key breeding grounds for ducks, most of which are doing well. Howerter did note that habitat loss remains a concern, with 80 acres of wetlands – “or about 45 soccer fields” – lost every day in Canada.

One of Canada’s greatest migrants is also one of the most threatened: the Red Knot, a small, plump shorebird that migrates from Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic to breed in the summer.

The Red Knot flies about 30,000 kilometres a year, said Ted Cheskey, manager of bird conservation programs at Nature Canada. That means it flies the distance between the Earth and the moon by its 13th birthday. “Phenomenal,” Cheskey said, stressing the need for international co-operation to protect the network of stopover spots where shorebirds refuel during migration.

Richard Cannings, senior project officer for Bird Studies Canada, said another possible factor contributing to the decline of long-distant migrants was climate change, which might be altering the timing of insect hatches in Canada. “Perhaps these birds are just out of synchrony with the insect populations (and) so are having trouble feeding their young, so the populations are steadily declining,” he said. “It’s a very complex problem.”

Cheskey said Nature Canada was “very concerned” about the proposed changes to federal Fisheries Act. “In protecting fish habitat you are also maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems that are very good to birds.” he said, adding that the protections being removed from the act go far beyond fish and help protect streams, rivers and deltas that are important for many bird species.

The report says there are plenty of ways people can help, such as buying coffee and beef produced with “bird-friendly” practices and keeping felines indoors. The report says cats kill more than 100 million birds every year in Canada. “Research has shown that cats kill many more birds than their owners realize and that bells on collars do not save birds,” it says.

See the full report  at

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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