Jun 29

Almost half of Canada’s bird species are in serious decline, according to the first comprehensive report on the state of the country’s bird populations.

Photo of spotted owl amongst moss

The spotted owl, just one of Canada’s declining bird species.

The report, entitled “The State of Canada’s Birds”, summarises the status of bird populations across eight regions, including the boreal forests, prairies and oceans. Drawing on 40 years of data, it presents an overview of how Canada’s bird species are faring.

Overall, Canadian bird populations have declined by 12% since the 1970s, with particularly serious declines in grassland birds, shorebirds and aerial insectivores, which catch their insect prey on the wing. These groups have all decreased by over 40%, with some individual species falling by an alarming 90% or more.

Photo of Sprague's pipit on frozen mud

Like many of Canada’s grassland birds, Sprague’s pipit is declining due to habitat loss.

Although some birds were found to have stable or even increasing populations, overall more species are declining than increasing, with around 44% of Canada’s bird species having decreasing populations.

Threats to Canada’s birds

One of the major threats to Canada’s bird populations is habitat loss, such as the loss of grasslands and prairies. Shorebirds, which have declined by almost a half, are also affected by the loss and alteration of wetlands. Aerial insectivores are declining more steeply than any other group; the exact reasons for this are unclear, but could include the use of pesticides and changes in insect populations due to climate change.

We need to find ways to do better because right now we are in the process of losing species. It takes a big investment to recover a species and in a difficult economic time it will be very difficult to find these sorts of resources,” says Ted Cheskey, manager of bird conservation programmes at Nature Canada, who contributed to the report.

Photo of barn swallow fledgling being fed by adult

Birds that catch insects in the air, such as the barn swallow, are declining more steeply than any other bird group in Canada.

Not all of the threats to Canada’s birds occur within its borders. About three-quarters of Canadian bird species spend part of their life cycle elsewhere, with many heading south for the winter. This means that habitat loss and other threats along migratory routes and in wintering grounds can have significant impacts on Canadian bird populations.

Good news stories

It is not all bad news, however, with some Canadian species showing increased populations as a result of successful conservation efforts. For example, birds of prey such as the peregrine falcon, osprey and bald eagle have begun to recover after a ban on pesticides in the 1970s. Effective management of wetlands and hunting have also benefitted many waterfowl species.

We can bring them back again,” says Charles Francis, programme manager at the Canadian Wildlife Service, part of Environment Canada, “but that can only happen if we take action on time and promptly.”

Photo of osprey adult flying, about to land

Raptors such as the osprey are faring better in Canada after bans on harmful pesticides.

Conserving Canada’s birds

New and ongoing conservation efforts will be needed to ensure that the successes shown in raptors and waterfowl continue, and to reverse the worrying downward trends seen in other bird groups. The conservation of Canada’s birds will require coordinated efforts by individuals, conservation organisations and governments, both in Canada and internationally, and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative is working to help achieve this.

This report illustrates that direct conservation efforts can have a positive impact. Nevertheless, many threats to wetlands and upland habitats remain, so it is important that focus on these important habitats is maintained to ensure waterfowl populations continue to thrive and populations of other bird groups can be conserved,” says Dave Howerter, National Manager for the Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research at Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Read more on this story at Nature News Blog – Fowl trends for Canadian birds.

Read the full report at The State of Canada’s Birds 2012.

View photos and videos of species from Canada on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author