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Bird habitat is a continent-wide concern – and must be preserved. (Jeff Nadler/Pew Environment Group)

Bird habitat is a continent-wide concern – and must be preserved.

(Jeff Nadler/Pew Environment Group)

Jeff Wells

Listen to nature’s tweets Add to ...

One of the joys of having a garden, or of walking in a park or down almost any tree-lined street in North America, is the sight and sound of our songbirds. For many of us, their chorus beats virtual tweeting any day. But in recent years, these birds have become increasingly harder to hear.

Drawing on 40 years of data, the authors at the North American Bird Conservation Initiative show in a first-ever, comprehensive study (State of Canada’s Birds) that a number of Canada’s favourite species are in trouble, and many more soon will be. In total, 44 per cent of all Canadian birds are in decline. The cause: disappearing habitat combined with climate change, both at home and abroad.

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The news is as alarming to me, an American birder living in Maine, as it would be to any Canadian. Many of the species that pass through my backyard are coming from or heading to Canada. After all, the Canadian boreal forest is North America’s bird nursery, exploding with 3-billion to 5-billion migrants on their way south each fall.

The problem is not just Canada’s, of course. Since the birds don’t recognize international borders, protecting the habitats on which these birds depend during their migrations takes continentwide efforts. If we are to reverse their decline, Canadian and U.S. governments and conservation groups need to collaborate.

As State of Canada’s Birds notes, cross-border co-operation works. Indeed, in the case of ducks and geese, North American waterfowl programs and conservation measures have already helped increase populations.

The Canadian government in 2007 established the Natural Areas Conservation Program and provided $225-million to help nongovernmental organizations secure ecologically sensitive lands. The fund is led by The Nature Conservancy of Canada with assistance from another non-profit, Ducks Unlimited Canada. In order to encourage donations, the government matches funds raised by U.S. or Canadian groups.

The U.S. government has a long history of supporting Canadian bird conservation, including $422-million for Canadian wetland conservation efforts under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Other U.S. sources contributed $430-million to Canadian wetland preservation efforts, including $59-million from state governments.

Since 1986, these initiatives have safeguarded roughly 10-million acres and influenced management on more than 30-million acres of wetland habitat vital to birds across Canada. A recent commitment between Ducks Unlimited and the U.S.-based Pew Charitable Trusts to 10 more years of boreal forest conservation work confirms we have willing partners, both private and public, when it comes to protecting the birds we all share.

There is reason to feel positive about the future of our shared avian friends. Actions such as Quebec’s Plan Nord, which would strictly protect a boreal region the size of France from industrial development, and conservation partnerships with native groups in B.C., Ontario, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Labrador, are all encouraging.

If we can extend our concern and efforts to songbirds and their vital Canadian boreal forest home, we can give them a fighting chance. Our songbirds aren’t canaries, but how they fare in the future will be a test of the health of the environment on which we all depend, and of the commitment on both sides of the border to protect them. Let nature’s twittering thrive.

Jeff Wells, an ornithologist and conservation biologist, is a science adviser to the Pew Environment Group’s Canadian boreal protection campaign.

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