Anne Murray: Bad and good news for Canada’s birds

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      Barn swallows are birds with a long history of associating with people. They frequently make their mud nests under the eaves of houses, stables and barns. These summer visitors fly enormous distances from South America to raise chicks in Canada, then gather in chattering flocks on overhead wires before heading south again for the winter.

      Shockingly, this once common and familiar bird has suffered drastic declines in population in recent decades. Since 1970, they have declined to less than a quarter of their previous number. The dramatic loss of these once common, artistically swooping, aerial insect-eaters, that brighten our countryside, is almost inexplicable. It should be a dire warning for the health of nature across the Americas.

      The barn swallow statistic is just one of the conclusions in a seminal report on the “State of Canada’s Birds 2012”, a collaborative work by non-government groups and government agencies, under the umbrella of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI). There are 451 bird species that regularly occur in Canada, and for those that have sufficient data to establish population trends, it was found that 44 percent of species have decreased, 23 percent show little change and a more fortunate 33 percent have increased.

      The good news of increases occurs mainly among waterfowl and raptors. Waterfowl have seen very effective improvements in the management of hunting and habitat enhancement. Raptors (hawks, eagles and other birds of prey) benefited from the elimination of the pesticide DDT, leading to the return of iconic birds such as the peregrine falcon and bald eagle.

      Birds which have experienced major declines belong to three groups: aerial insectivores, like swallows and flycatchers, shorebirds, and grassland birds. All of these tend to be long-distance migrants, which rely on stopover habitats en route between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering areas.

      Aerial insect-eaters (or insectivores) have decreased more than any other group in Canada, with 22 out of 26 breeding species showing a decline, including swallows, swifts and nighthawks. While the cause is uncertain, and these birds pass through many countries before raising chicks in Canada, a few ideas spring to mind. How many people still pepper their yards with cosmetic pesticides hoping for the perfect lawn and disregarding the health of wildlife (and humans)? How often do people knock down an “untidy” swallow’s nest, believing it to be an eyesore on their property or some sort of health hazard, rather than an opportunity to raise a family of bug eaters?

      Both these problems are easily addressed by home owners, and could make a big difference to these beneficial birds. A tougher situation is that of climate change, which may be causing a mismatch in the emergence of insects and the timing of seasonal cycles for birds, since even a week or two’s change in their synchronicity can lead to failed breeding success.

      Shorebirds, that have some of the longest migration journeys of all the birds, have suffered an average 50 percent decline. Birds like the western sandpiper travel 11,000 kilometres between wintering and nesting areas, stopping at coastal locations such as Panama Bay, Grays Harbour, Wash., our local Fraser River estuary and the Copper River delta in Alaska. Protection of each link in the chain is essential and this is where citizen action can help, by impressing on politicians the importance of protecting birds and nature. The adage “Think global, act local” is still as true as ever, in protecting migrant birds.

      B.C. is known for the sea birds that nest on islands and rocky shores along its wild and rugged coast. In contrast to the Arctic and Atlantic coasts where seabird populations have generally increased, thanks to long-term recovery from historical over-hunting, the Pacific coast has seen local declines for species such as Cassin’s auklet and ancient murrelet. The introduction of predators such as rats and raccoons was fatal for some colonies off Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island.

      While this problem is being proactively addressed, seabirds feeding on ocean waters continue to be at risk from entrapment in fishing nets, oil leakage and spills. The proposed Enbridge pipeline would bring oil tankers through key seabird habitats and significantly increase the latter risk. Again, it is up to us citizens to drive political will towards nature protection.

      The good news that so many birds still thrive and flourish on our planet is tempered by the fact that some of those species were nearly lost by human mismanagement. Bald eagles were once a rare sight in the Lower Mainland; wintering trumpeter swans were virtually extinct. These species rebounded because people cared enough to do something about them. Let’s hope that the same can be said for the little insect-eating birds, our remarkable seabirds and those extraordinary, long-distance migrating shorebirds, the sandpipers and plovers.

      Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the Fraser River delta—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C.




      Jul 20, 2012 at 5:16pm

      Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Surrey Council will vote Monday on a development proposal that will clear cut more than 300 mature trees on the old Bose Farm property - an entire forest. And that forest will be replaced by ... townhouses.

      Care to guess how many small birds will be "displaced" (condemned to death) by such a development? Not to mention other small mammals and critters?

      terry slack

      Jul 20, 2012 at 8:45pm

      Barn owls , when they have no more old barns or any old rural buildings to nest in , where do they go ! They go extinct ! When Cliff Swallows have no more suitable quiet cliffs to nest in, they try to nest in the overhang of Condos etc. and and there they are concidered a messy nuisance by the home owners and the nests are washed down ! When gravel playing fields are made into artificial turf sports fields with night lighting , where do the ground nesting Killdeer birds go to nest ,yes not there any more ! Terry Slack

      Valerie Fuller

      Jul 20, 2012 at 9:09pm

      It can be overwhelmingly distressing to hear all of the bad news, but there are still some wonderful people out there, like Anne Murray, who care enormously about the environment and are prepared to fight the good fight to protect it. Let's never forget Margaret Mead's much quoted advice:
      "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has."


      Jul 21, 2012 at 8:49am

      Unfortunately, certain Vancouverites are directly effecting the survival of global populations of birds. Barn swallows have long raised their chicks in the wooden barns of the Southlands area of Vancouver (which Terry Slack knows well). Today, however, the barns are increasingly razed for huge monster homes and those that remain are not often friendly to swallows. This spring, I personally witnessed the removal of at least 6 nests - despite my repeated protests. People (especially the rich who use to their wealth to insulate themselves from the exigencies of life) are at end very selfish creatures. They'd rather a barn devoid of bird pooh than any beautiful birds at all. (Never mind the fact that these swallows eat an average of 60 insects per hour, or 850 insects per day. That's 25,00 fewer insects per month that would be feeding on their horses). The plovers or killdeer of Southlands have suffered a similar fate. The sandy beaches where they once built their rocky nests have been replaced by banks of rip-rap which protect the monster homes from the Fraser. Deering Island, once a sandy spit used as a net-loft for fishermen now filled with monster homes surrounded by rip-rap, is a case in point. One remaining pair of nesting plovers have made their home at the Southlands Riding Club, where they precariously raise their chicks amidst grounds-keeping machinery and horses hooves.

      Save Vancouver

      Jul 21, 2012 at 1:57pm

      @Terry Slack - Um, where did barn owls nest before Europeans built barns? There weren't enough longhouses to support a population so I'm pretty sure they can make do without barns.

      June Ryder

      Jul 21, 2012 at 6:27pm

      It's easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed when we read about these declines in our bird populations, but there are actions that we (particularly house-owners) can take. Millions of birds are killed each year by collisions with windows (windows of houses as well as large buildings) -- so to make your window glass obvious to the birds, install closely-spaced decals or dangling cords or netting on the outside to break up reflections. Huge numbers of birds also die as a result of predation by cats -- so keep them indoors, especially at dawn and dusk when birds are most vulnerable (this keeps cats safe too). Feed your backyard birds in winter: put out water, seed and suet in places safe from predators but distant from windows. And install nest boxes in safe places in spring.

      liz w.

      Jul 27, 2012 at 3:22pm

      Thanks, once again, to Anne for bringing up an important subject--yet another bird population being threatened. Will it ever end?
      It's too bad developers see no value in protection of wildlife. They only see the green $

      Kathleen Whipp

      Jul 31, 2012 at 12:24pm

      Ann, thanks for giving us ways to promote the survival of these birds!