Are we seeing more or fewer birds since 1970? New report shares findings

Pintail in flight Tom Reichner/shutterstock

Does it seem like you’re seeing more ducks than you remember as a kid? You might be right. A new report examining changes in bird populations in Canada since 1970 has revealed that investments in conservation have yielded improvements for waterfowl and birds of prey, however other groups of birds have declined significantly.

The 2019 State of Canada’s Birds report, published by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative in Canada (NABCI-Canada), a collaborative effort under the leadership of Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Studies Canada, Nature Canada, and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

The good news

Waterfowl populations have shown substantial improvements, increasing by 150 percent, as they benefitted from investments in habitat restoration and protection. “Things really took off in 1986 with the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which was an international effort between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, to really concentrate effort on habitat conservation across North America,” says Dr. Jim Devries, research scientist with Ducks Unlimited Canada. A major focus for habitat restoration were wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region, which covers the agricultural areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. This region attracts some of the highest breeding densities of ducks every year, with up to 50 percent of the North American population of ducks settling in the area to breed, says Dr. Devries. Conservation action protected existing wetlands and restored ones that had been drained, and added grassland cover to the landscape. The work to conserve waterfowl is far from over, though. Dr. Devries says that changes in crop practices, conversion of grassland to cropland, and droughts are all events that could quickly change the trajectories of prairie duck populations. “It’s really a case of continued vigilance in terms of reducing threats to waterfowl habitat, but also continuing conservation and building a habitat base that we know they can count on.”

Birds of prey have recovered from low populations and increased 110 percent since 1970. This recovery is linked to Canada’s 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT. “Birds of prey populations have absolutely benefitted from the banning of harmful chemicals such as DDT, known to cause egg thinning and reproductive failure,” says Andrew Couturier, Senior Director of Landscape Science and Conservation with Bird Studies Canada. “Just in my local backyard here on the southern Great Lakes, the bald eagle population has really rebounded tremendously since the 1980s, when there were hardly any birds at all.”

The bad news

Not all groups of birds fared as well. Aerial insectivores, birds that catch and eat insects on the wing, have declined by 59 percent. Couturier highlights the role aerial insectivores play in keeping mosquito swarms at bay during a cottage night. “All types of swallows—barn swallows, bank swallows, tree swallows, purple martins—and also species like common nighthawks, are examples of birds that eat hundreds of mosquitoes everyday, maybe even up to a thousand mosquitoes per bird.” Not only do aerial insectivores provide free pest control, “they are providing a mental well-being benefit to us through their songs, their behaviours, and their colours. Who doesn’t enjoy watching swallows swooping over the water, eating mosquitoes?” 

Pinpointing the cause of aerial insectivore decline is difficult. This group covers a lot of ground when they migrate south for the winter, with some species making the journey all the way to the Amazon rainforest. Threats occur at both ends of the migration, says Couturier. In the north, birds risk flying into buildings or being preyed upon by cats. In the south, they face habitat loss from the clearing of forests and other natural areas. To top it off, there are concerns that insect populations, the food source for insectivores, are declining worldwide.

How you can help

Sixty-six percent of the data for the 2019 State of Canada’s Birds Report was provided by volunteer citizen scientists. If you’re concerned about the future of Canada’s birds, there are a number of citizen-science programs for every level of birder to help researchers track and learn about bird populations. Would you enjoy sitting on your porch and counting birds as they visit a feeder? Project FeederWatch might be a good fit for you. Prefer to get outside over the holiday season and spend a day with enthusiastic birdwatchers? Check out the Christmas Bird Count. Does your cottage sit on a lake? Consider the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey. And for the casual bird-watcher, there’s a downloadable app for smartphones called eBird for quick and easy bird sightings. To find the best match, visit the Bird Studies Canada website to learn about national and regional volunteer projects.

Finally, if you care about birds and their future, speak up about your concerns. “Certainly a lot of support for habitat conservation comes at the government level,” says Dr. Devries, adding: “make sure the government knows you care about birds, and you care about what happens to them and about what’s happening to their habitat—it’s always important if you have the opportunity, to let people know that.”

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