A new report released by the Partners In Flight coalition contains a shocking statistic — there are a billion and a half fewer birds now on the North American continent then there was in 1970. That’s a loss like we are used to hearing about from distant history. That’s roughly the number of Passenger Pigeons that were estimated to have once flown so thick they darkened the skies before going extinct in 1914.
The report goes on to say that most of those 1.5 billion were birds that nest and breed in Canada’s Boreal Forest region. This is alarming news. But a bold and sweeping solution underway in the Boreal Forest offers a chance to restore birds to their natural abundance.
Canada is on track to protect at least 50 per cent of the Boreal Forest. Stretching from Alaska to Labrador, the Boreal has more intact forest than the Amazon and nearly twice as much carbon in storage as tropical forests. It is a crowning jewel at the top of the globe. Preserving it now will make bird species more resilient as they face climate change and habitat loss along their migration routes south.
They need that resilience now more than ever.
The Partners In Flight report found that eight of the birds in steep decline — birds that had lost half of their entire population over the last 40 years — are particularly dependent on the Boreal Forest. In fact, the three birds with the biggest drops in abundance at the top of the list are all Boreal Forest breeding species. Each has declined by more than 85 per cent since 1970.
The bird with the steepest decline, according to Partners In Flight, is the Blackpoll Warbler. The vast majority of these birds breed in the Boreal Forest, then they undertake an incredible journey to winter in the northern reaches of the Amazon Basin of South America. At current rates, Blackpoll Warblers are expected to see another 50 per cent drop in population before a child born today can graduate from high school.
The declines we’ve seen are too large and too fast for small solutions.
Fortunately, big solutions are already moving forward.
A little over a decade ago, First Nations, conservation organizations and progressive businesses embraced a visionary idea: the Canadian Boreal Forest Framework. The framework calls for protecting at least half of the Boreal Forest Region and applying rigorous sustainability standards on the rest. In 2007, more than 1500 scientists from around the world signed a letter explaining the scientific principles behind the idea.
Since then, the governments of Ontario and Quebec have committed to conserving at least half of their northern landscapes. These areas will provide breeding habitat for tens of millions of birds.
Indigenous governments and communities are showing some of the most ambitious leadership, developing new land use plans and management models in places like the Pimachiowin Aki site in Manitoba and Ontario; the Dehcho, Lutsel’ke and Deline First Nations of the Northwest Territories; the Eeyou Istchee (Cree Nation) of Quebec; the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Moose Cree First Nations of Ontario; and the Innu Nation of Labrador. The leadership of Indigenous governments and communities in Canada’s Boreal Forest Region has led to some of the largest gains to protect bird habitat in world history.
The loss of 1.5 billion birds over the last 40 years should awaken us to the incredible need to think big and act boldly when it comes to ensuring the health of birds and our environment. New ideas, new models, and new partners will be required but it can be done.
Let’s do it while we still have time.