Birds are in big trouble in North America. A recent study found 127 species of neotropical migratory birds are in decline. How badly? The Black-chinned Sparrow population has fallen 89 per cent over the past 40 years, the Cerulean Warbler is down 83 per cent, and Sprague’s Pipit population has declined by 81 per cent.
So drastically have overall migratory bird populations fallen that one scientist who compared weather satellite images over time, found that migrating bird flocks were 50 per cent smaller than they were several years ago.
Last week in Washington, Congress began hearings into the crisis and there were calls on the government to boost funding to the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. Since 2002, the visionary piece of legislation has awarded more than $25-million in grants (leveraging $116-million in matching funds) to projects mostly outside the U.S. that are aimed at protecting birds in North, South and Central America.
But in Canada, the plight of migratory birds remains off the political radar.
Indeed, while the U.S. government is searching for answers and looking at increased funding for projects that protect migratory birds, we are going the other way.
Last year the Canadian Wildlife Service had its service budget frozen and the Migratory Bird Program, which monitors the health of bird populations, was cut by 40 per cent.
Environment Canada’s budget allocation for protecting and conserving biodiversity is dropping from $126-million this year, to $118-million next year and $116-million by 2009-10.
Forget about the birds, we seem to be saying, they can fly away and take care of themselves.
But migrating has become increasingly perilous for neotropical birds, which breed in Canada and the U.S. in the summer, and winter in the south, mostly in just five countries: Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.
The American Bird Conservancy says the greatest threat to neotropical migrants is habitat destruction, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, where Mexico has only 50 per cent of its forests left, Dominican Republic, 29 per cent, and Haiti, 3 per cent.
But there are problems in the north as well.
“Many bird species, such as the Bay-breasted Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher, migrate to the boreal forest in Canada, where timber, mining, and drilling operations are spreading at a rapid pace. Logging is often allowed during nesting season, and as a result many bird nests are destroyed each year,” stated the American Bird Conservancy in a report last week.
In B.C. at the moment the provincial government is promoting port expansion on the Fraser Delta, the most important staging area for migratory birds on the West Coast. The development will put at risk mud flats used by five million birds annually, including threatened species such as the Long-billed Curlew and the Pink-footed Shearwater.
And on the north coast, a massive wind farm that would be built in the middle of an important Pacific flyway, in Hecate Strait, is being extolled as a “green” solution to growing energy needs.
Across the prairies, the spread of massive monoculture operations, a growing number of which are aimed at producing biofuel crops, has wiped out an untold number of birds.
Canadian cities bristle with well-lit buildings, communication towers and power lines that have been blamed, in the U.S., for causing millions of bird deaths annually.
More than 90 per cent of the bird species in Canada are migratory, which means we have a responsibility to other nations to make sure the northern end of the neotropical migratory bird network is properly managed.
Paralyzing the Canadian Wildlife Service with budget cuts is not helping, nor is allowing the destruction of important staging areas.
The federal government needs to look at the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act as a model for similar legislation in Canada.
And authorities need to move decisively to protect key habitat areas.
Everyone loves the sound of singing birds. But few politicians seem to hear in those lilting tunes the cry for help that is being raised.
14 July 2008