Why disappearing birds in Peru matters to you

A russet-crowned Warbler (Basileuterus coronatus elatus), one of the birds with a steep decline in population at the top of the Peruvian Andes. Stubblefield Photography/Shutterstock

The news is not great. The World Wildlife Fund has just released its biennial Living Planet Report, and the latest data show that monitored global wildlife populations have declined by a staggering 60 per cent in just over 40 years. Here are some findings for Canada: an 83 per cent decline in vertebrate species; a 16 per cent decline in reptiles and amphibians in Ontario and Quebec because of habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality, and pollution; a 32 per cent decline in native fish populations in Lake Ontario between 1992 and 2014 because of exploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

Another study, by University of British Columbia and Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientists and released the same day, highlights the plight of one set of species, tropical mountain-dwelling birds in the Peruvian Andes. Its alarming message is in the title—“Mountain Birds Are on an Escalator to Extinction.”

The UBC/Cornell study found that habitat zones for several species had shifted upslope since 1985 in the Andes. Birds responded by moving higher up the mountain to stay within the zone to which they are adapted. The birds at the very top, with not much room to inhabit to begin with, were left with nowhere to go. Of the 16 species surveyed in 1985, only eight remained in 2017.

We asked Benjamin Freeman, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC, about the implications of his work for Canadian species. “The most clear answer is that we don’t know,” he says. “The metaphor of the racing escalator seems to work in the tropics, but the available data for temperate zones such as Canada is different. There’s a small signal that animals are living higher up, but the amount is smaller. The escalator seems to be running very slowly, but the long-term result is probably similar to that in the tropics.”

Recent warming has changed where wildlife makes its habitat, says Freeman, and we can expect that shifting of space to continue. Protected corridors for wildlife conservation are part of the solution to habitat loss, he says. Cottagers, says Freeman, should “advocate for the habitat in their backyards, their neighbourhoods, their towns, and where they like to go hiking.”

The WWF report echoes his recommendations. “We still have a chance to turn around our impact on nature and begin to reverse the decline on wildlife,” says Megan Leslie, the president and CEO of WWF-Canada, in a release. “Canada has committed to new land protections the size of Alberta by 2020. If we do this right, by choosing connected areas that have maximum value for wildlife, we could make meaningful progress on supporting biodiversity here at home.”

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