A huge number of North American boreal forest birds have been lost in the past half-century, data from a major new report suggests – and studies in the NWT agree.
On September 19, a report published by the journal Science documented the apparent disappearance of three billion birds – nearly 30 percent of the total – across North America since 1970.
Science Magazine, summarizing the findings, said birds are "disappearing from the skies at a rate that's shocking even to ornithologists."
While the report contains no data specific to the Northwest Territories, at least 500 million of the birds reported lost were from boreal forest environments like the one covering much of the territory.
In full: Journal article – Decline of the North American avifauna
More: Plain-language Science Magazine explanation of the findings
That equates to a third of all boreal birds.
“It’s quite intriguing when we think about the boreal forest, which for the most part is quite pristine,” said Dr Samuel Hache, a Yellowknife-based Canadian Wildlife Service biologist.
“For sure, there's areas in the provinces where you have a lot of habitat loss in terms of forestry, the energy sector, and a lot of urbanization. But [the boreal forest is] still the southern fringe, like a third of the area."
The other two-thirds of the boreal forest, Hache said, are “considered somewhat still pristine and natural, [so] it’s quite concerning.”
Most bird species in the boreal forest are migratory. They may ordinarily spend two to four months in the NWT and surrounding forests before heading down south.
“So then they’re encountering a bunch of the same threats that all the other species have in terms of window collisions, cats, and also habitat loss and human development," Hache continued.
Hache referenced the 3billionbirds.org website, which lists actions people can take to help protect birds: from putting window stickers up, to planting native species in your yard, to purchasing shade-grown coffee that encourages plant diversity at coffee plantations.
“The last one, I think is fundamentally important: really just going out there and just appreciating the diversity, the wildlife, and the beauty of these birds that are just trying to make a living, and just talking about it," said Hache.
The Canadian Wildlife Service is working with communities across the NWT to monitor change in bird numbers.
The service used to send an expert into the forest by helicopter in June, when the birds are out singing – an expensive practice.
“Nowadays, we try to look at different options: like recording units we deploy during the winter, along winter roads,” Hache told Cabin Radio. By having communities put up recording devices across the NWT, the service can better monitor where birds are and what changes are taking place.
The NWT also has a long-term land bird monitoring program, which began in 1998 in the Liard Valley.
“It's quite interesting to see that our on-the-ground surveys reflect exactly the results that have been shown for forest birds in the boreal forests," he described, adding an updated report is expected in early spring.
"We have precise estimates; half of them are declining. It lines up perfectly with this large-scale study."
Loss of birds is forecast to have a range of broader impacts across the continent, from the economy – birders spend $55 billion annually in the United States, a 2011 report suggested – to the ecosystem.
“Birds are good indicators of ecosystem health," said Hache. "They are good pollinators, they disperse seeds that help forests regenerate, and they’re also able to control pests."
That may be one of the most noticeable longer-term changes for northern residents if trends continue.
“In Yellowknife, we talk a lot about bugs during the summer," said Hache, "but it would be quite a bit worse if we didn’t have our swallows or common nighthawks."