Friday, June 29, 2012

The State of Canada's Birds: a Report

Greater Sage-Grouse--one of several grassland birds in steep decline

Canadian NGOs and the Canadian Wildlife Service (yes, it still exists) have jointly produced the first State of Canada's Birds Report. Here is the pdf of the actual report.

Based on a review of 40 years of data, the report provides the first-ever comprehensive picture of the current health of Canada's birds. Released by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI-Canada), under the leadership of Environment Canada (CWS), Bird Studies Canada, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Nature Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Wildlife Habitat Canada, the report was released on Wednesday receiving coverage on CBC and elsewhere.

The story is not good, of course, in general and even worse for grassland birds in particular, which on average have declined in Canada by 40% during that period. Along with aerial insectivores (swallows, nighthawks, and flycatchers), and shorebirds, grassland species are the worst off.

The report, some 36 pages, is well done, but I wish these kind of documents could be more direct and forthright instead of taking the mincing, bureaucratic tone of every report edited by committee. When are we going to admit, for example, that our focus on individual species in the Species at Risk, endangered species approach is an abject failure; that we are not making any progress securing important bird habitats and preventing industry from destroying them?

Sure, we can point at the successes of the American White Pelican and Peregrine Falcon, but stopping DDT was most of the work there. "Species at risk" may get results when there is a smoking gun but it does little to get at the more nuanced and political questions of how we secure the right kind of habitat for birds. The focus on individual species has outlived its use as a strategy for protecting biodiversity. We have a lot of habitats at risk and no one is even naming them much less protecting them.

Here is one example of what I am talking about. The report's section on the prairies understates the plight of the Greater Sage-Grouse, saying "the endangered Greater Sage-Grouse, highly susceptible to disturbance, occurs in habitats increasingly subject to oil and gas development. Preservation and restoration of its prairie and sagebrush habitat will benefit many other grassland species."

"Increasingly subject to oil and gas development"?? Why mince words? The Greater-Sage-Grouse, down to fewer than fifty birds now, is tottering on the edge of extirpation in Canada in part because of that development. We have known it was declining for thirty years now; known the habitat they need, known the kinds of things threatening it. All of our status designations, recovery strategy meetings, dithering over critical wildlife habitat, and talk of partnering with industry have been a waste of time.

Silver Sage habitat

In the end, our regulations and endangered species legislation could not protect the places where the Sage-Grouse breed and live, could not keep oil and gas development out of Canada's Silver Sage habitat. Our federal biologists and others who monitored the situation had to stand by as the oil and gas industry drove this magnificent bird from the land by creating ponds that produce West Nile mosquitoes, installing vertical structures that advantage predators, cutting up the sage flats with hundreds of roads and drill sites, and in countless ways destroying the silence the grouse need to find one another and breed successfully.

As well, in the prairie section, the report's well-meaning authors have mouthed the accepted dogma about no-till agriculture being "bird-friendly." It may be friendly to a few duck species (however, even that needs to be revisited in long term studies), but in general it has brought on a new generation of farm machinery and high-cost inputs that make it very expensive for farmers to leave the kind of grassy margins around sloughs, brush, field edges and roadways where a certain guild of farm-land birds (meadowlarks and several species of grassland sparrows) have traditionally been able to survive.

When this is the size of no-till rigs, how can a farmer leave any habitat?

Someone from Bird Studies Canada needs to do a study of the total bird biodiversity shift that has occurred in the move to no-till ag over large landscapes. Leaving standing stubble in a field is an ecologically preferred practice, to be sure, for the soil conservation and water quality side of things, and it does allow some birds a breeding habitat of sorts, but are these stubble fields ecological sinks, and what is the overall productivity and survival of those birds that breed there? Many must be killed during the seeding and spraying periods. More importantly, what about the loss of all the in-field and edge of field bird habitat that no-till has brought on by introducing larger machinery and higher input costs? Never mind what is happening to the soil health from the constant use of Glyphosate and other herbicides.

To close on a more hopeful note, on my Breeding Bird Survey last Saturday my partner Ed Rodger and I found young loggerhead shrikes just emerging from their nest on the edge of the town of Francis. (See photo below.) One of Canada's most endangered grassland birds, the loggerhead could disappear too if we don't take the right steps to protect its habitat and healthy food sources.

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