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Vancouver’s bird values helped ornithological congress bid take flight

A flock of western sandpipers flies over the Strait of Georgia. Vancouver is a city that is ‘very keenly aware of birds.’

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The bidding war for the International Ornithological Congress is almost as fierce as the push for the Olympics, and in the birding world, the event is a more important one.

Vancouver last week won the prestigious conference, which will bring more than 2,000 bird scientists to the city in 2018, in part because the team that went to Japan to vie for the event could boast about the city's new bird strategy.

Vancouver's natural beauty and its spectacular waterfront conference centre were big factors in the winning bid. But so too was the strategy that aims to expand and diversify birdlife in the city by making parks more attractive and buildings less dangerous for birds.

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The policy was formally adopted only recently, but a detailed draft plan was in circulation last year when Robert Elner, a scientist emeritus with Environment Canada, led Vancouver's delegation to Tokyo, where the congress held its last conference.

"I'd done a program with Tourism Vancouver on how to bring big events to Vancouver, how to stage it and what support was there. So when the opportunity came up to put a bid in for this, they worked with me very, very closely," Dr. Elner said. "We made a publicity movie with a soundtrack from a local composer. They helped me … by sending some more people [with me] and by setting up a booth at the conference in Tokyo. Basically, we went into it in a very big way with a lot of local support because this bid is highly competitive."

The congress meets every four years and since it was first held in 1884, it has only come to Canada once before, to Ottawa in 1986. So getting it for Vancouver was not going to be easy.

But Dr. Elner had some advantages.

"One is the conference centre downtown, which is absolutely magnificent. And the local birding opportunities, which are immense, you know, in terms of Stanley Park and the alpine [in North and West Vancouver] and the marine environment on the coast," he said. "[Other factors were] the local universities with their great reputations in birding [research]. The Canadian Wildlife Service being here – and the public interest [in birds], especially the City of Vancouver's bird strategy and the fact we already had a city that was very keenly aware of birds and bird values and were promoting them."

The city's bird strategy hasn't got a lot of media attention, being overshadowed by debates on transit issues, taxes, housing costs and other weighty issues.

But the plan is an important one that over the years could have a profound impact on nature in the city.

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Studies have found that habitat loss has caused a 35-per-cent decline in bird species along the Pacific Coast since 1970. In Vancouver, 87 per cent of the original forest cover has been stripped away and replaced with urban development since the 1850s.

When researchers mapped the "birding hot spots" in Vancouver, they found all the primary locations sat right on top of city parks. Not surprisingly, birds are drawn to green spaces.

Under the new city strategy, some new parks will be added – such as one proposed on the banks of the Fraser River in Marpole – and some existing parks will be relandscaped to make them more bird friendly. Studies have shown that layers of vegetation, not vast expanses of lawns, attract more birds. In addition, the city plans to plant 150,000 new trees and has adopted a policy that encourages developers to reduce the amount of reflective glass (which birds fly into) and shield lighting so it doesn't shine into the night sky, disorienting birds.

Terry Slack, a former commercial fisherman who has been lobbying for more green space in Marpole, said the plan by the city to buy a former mill site on the Fraser and turn it into a 10-acre park offers a great opportunity to help birds.

"We have an opportunity here to create a waterfront park that's focused on quietness and birds, right in the middle of a neighbourhood that's undergoing tremendous growth," he said.

Marpole residents have suggested calling it Chickadee Park. It might be the first in Canada ever built as much for birds as for people. Both will flock there, of course – and it will make a great showpiece when all those ornithologists come to town.

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