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Save the birds? Save their habitat Add to ...

International Migratory Bird Day, which falls tomorrow, reminds us of the remarkable phenomenon we witness every year at this time: an amazing spring migration, with millions of birds flying thousands of kilometres from South and Central America and the southern United States north to Canada's vast boreal forest.

But with each passing year, the number of these avian visitors diminishes. In fact, migratory songbirds are experiencing one of the most precipitous declines of any animal group on earth.

We have already seen startling declines in the populations of some species that depend on the boreal forest. The olive-sided flycatcher and the Canada warbler, once common boreal breeding species, are now listed as threatened by the Committee for the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Trends in long-term breeding-bird surveys have revealed population declines in flycatchers, boreal chickadees and bay-breasted warblers. In fact, more than half the birds profiled in the National Audubon Society's "20 common birds in decline" list depend on Canada's boreal forest as a breeding ground.

The boreal forest, a critically important breeding ground for hundreds of bird species, is itself becoming endangered, due to encroaching industrial uses such as logging, mining and energy corridors.

Will governments act swiftly to save this precious resource? Environment Canada and Ontario have recently deferred crucial decisions about protecting the boreal habitat of the threatened woodland caribou, an animal that has disappeared from much of Southern Canada and is predicted to disappear from many other areas. Last summer, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty made a landmark commitment to protect at least 50 per cent of Ontario's northern boreal region, followed by Quebec Premier Jean Charest's similar announcement last fall. These bold decisions set a standard that other provinces and territories would do well to emulate. We expect the Ontario government to table legislation this spring as the first step to follow through on its commitment. This legislation has to be strong and clear enough to ensure land-use planning that will realize the Premier's vision and promise.

At 1.4 billion hectares, Canada's boreal forest represents one-quarter of the largest intact forests in the world, and is the single most important breeding ground for birds in the Americas. The boreal ecosystem also contains the largest freshwater systems in the world and is the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon on Earth, helping to reduce the effects of global warming. Yet despite its global significance, just 12 per cent of Canada's boreal forest is currently protected, while almost 500 million hectares have been handed over to industry. Oil and gas exploration, logging, mining, road building and hydro development threaten to ravage boreal regions inhabited by birds and other wildlife.

As many as three billion birds depend on Canada's boreal forest to reproduce and raise their young. This includes three-quarters of the country's warblers and two-thirds of its sparrows and thrushes. Every spring, one in three of all land birds in the United States head for Canada's boreal forest. Tens of millions of waterfowl, waders and shorebirds nest in the region's wetlands, rivers and lakes.

Ontario Nature and the Boreal Songbird Initiative, with conservation partners across Canada and the Americas have circulated a petition appealing for much broader protection for this vast area. Such conservation measures cannot come too soon: Nearly 3,000 hectares of Canadian boreal forest, an area roughly the size of downtown Toronto, are clear-cut every day.

The petition calls for the protection of this key breeding bird habitat and asks that provinces and federal agencies protect ecologically important areas in the boreal forest before approving any major new industrial development projects. Where development is allowed, industrial interests should be compelled to adhere to the highest standards of sustainable development.

Canada has an opportunity to be a world leader in the conservation of large, intact landscapes. Boreal birds are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Their decline is a troubling sign that their habitats are under attack. Given that we share the same environment, it is in our best interests to pay attention to their fate.

It is time our governments listen to the science and institute comprehensive reforms to safeguard this Canadian and global treasure. Anything less will have serious consequences for us all.

Bridget Stutchbury is Canada research chair in ecology and conservation biology at York University. She is the author of Silence of the Songbirds , a finalist for the 2007 Governor-General's Literary Award for non-fiction. Jeffrey Wells is director of science and policy for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. Caroline Schultz is executive director of Ontario Nature.

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