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What’s the value of bird diversity?
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What’s the value of bird diversity?

North American scientists have demonstrated that more diverse bird populations can help to buffer people against infection from West Nile virus, according to recent research highlighted in BirdLife International's News section today. The article (available in full from PLoS ONE, here) demonstrates a link between high bird diversity and low incidence of West Nile virus in humans in eastern North America.

According to the authors, these results "illustrate an important ecosystem service provided by biodiversity, further supporting the growing view that protecting biodiversity should be considered in public health and safety plans." The study contributes to our growing understanding of the importance of preserving bird diversity - the many benefits include maintaining important ecosystem services (like buffering humans from infectious diseases) that have direct impacts on humans.
We are sometimes faced with the question of why it matters to ensure that all of our bird species are conserved. Why, for example, does it matter if we have Canada Warblers or Olive-sided Flycatchers left in Canada, if we have lots of other similar species with overlapping habitats and niches? Well, abundant bird diversity can mean more fully realized delivery of ecosystem services, like pest control from these insectivorous birds, or contributing to a buffer against disease. But we shouldn't forget the myriad intangible benefits of biodiversity, often having little relationship to direct or measurable benefits to humans, but that could be seen as at least as important as those ecosystem services.
I bring up Canada Warblers and Olive-sided Flycatchers for a reason: the Government of Canada is currently consulting on whether to add these (and many other) declining species to their official list of species under the Species at Risk Act. It is only through this listing that at-risk species receive the formal protection and recovery benefits offered by this legislation. It seems that all too often government hears about why a species at risk should not be listed, but they don't hear enough from those that support the legal listing. If you value bird biodiversity (for whatever reason), and want to make sure that it is maintained in Canada, I urge you to add your voice to the consultation. Go to the Species at Risk Public Registry and fill out their online comment form. Comments are due March 20, 2009.
(Photo: Olive-sided Flycatcher, by Jeff Nadler)

The canary in the coal mine is a Purple Finch
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The canary in the coal mine is a Purple Finch

An important new analysis on the effects of climate change on birds was released this week by our BirdLife partner in the United States, the National Audubon Society. The analysis of four decades of Christmas Bird Count observations reveals that North American birds are moving northward and inland towards cooler temperatures in response to a changing climate.

Specifically, 58% of the 305 widespread species that winter on the continent have shifted significantly north since 1968, some by hundreds of kilometres. The ongoing trend of movement of these species is closely correlated to long-term winter temperature increases. The evidence is striking for some species: Purple Finch, Pine Siskin and Boreal Chickadee have dramatically shifted their home ranges by hundreds of kilometres further north in the boreal forest over the past four decades. Even more alarmingly, some groups of species are running out of places to go in response to a changing climate. Only 38% of grassland bird species demonstrated significant shifts -- the grassland habitat for species like Eastern Meadowlark, Vesper Sparrow and Burrowing Owl is already significantly depleted making the strategy of climate adaptation through range shifts for these species impossible. What are the Canadian implications of these startling findings? Here are three: 1) The effects of global warming are being felt now. Species are being impacted in tangible, measurable ways. We can't continue to assume that the effects of global warming are theoretical, or so far away as to be impractical to act on. We are already seeing the effects to birds. 2) Conservation decisions need to incorporate consideration of climate change adaptation. Protected areas networks are essential, but they must be big enough to allow species to adapt to a changing climate. Promises by the governments of Quebec and Ontario to protect half of their boreal forest habitat are a good step in this direction, and one that will help with climate change mitigation too. 3) We need concerted, global and national action on global warming. The Audubon report points out:
It took legions of bird-loving citizen scientists to document how North America’s birds are responding in the face of global warming. It will take action by America’s millions of bird enthusiasts—and their elected representatives—to address the problem of climate change while there’s still time.
The same can be said for Canada's bird enthusiasts who tirelessly contribute to Christmas Bird Counts every year. It can certainly be said too about our elected representatives. We need both citizen action and concrete policy action to reduce the dramatic impacts that global warming is having on our bird populations. As this report on the Audubon analysis states, "When it comes to global warming, the canary in the coal mine isn't a canary at all. It's a purple finch." Now that we know about the Purple Finch, let's do something about it. Photo: Boreal Chickadee by Jeff Nadler

Turns out the Red Knot is not alone in its plight
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Turns out the Red Knot is not alone in its plight

This weekend, the New Jersey Star-Ledger published an interesting article highlighting the plight of two species of shorebirds, Red Knots and Semipalmated Sandpipers, that refuel in Delaware Bay before continuing on their migrations:
Tiny and easily overlooked among the hordes of more spectacular shorebirds streaming up and down the Atlantic Coast, the semipalmated sandpiper is suddenly standing out in the fragile ecological ballet that unfolds annually at the Delaware Bay. The little brown bird, named because of its partially webbed feet, is providing new insight into the link scientists have drawn between the plummeting population of the more celebrated red knot sandpiper and dwindling number of horseshoe crab eggs on the New Jersey and Delaware shores. A team of five researchers with New Jersey Audubon and a Dutch scientist, wrapping up a month of field work last week in the South American wintering grounds of the semipalmated sandpiper, announced that they have found evidence the species also is in serious decline -- and likely for the same reason as the red knots. In the 1980s, about 2 million semipalmated were counted by researchers on the 4,000-mile coastline of Suriname and neighboring French Guiana, where scientists say 85 percent of the world's population of the bird winters annually. Last month, only 400,000 of the birds were found in aerial surveys by the New Jersey Audubon expedition. "We had already found a 50 percent decline over 15 years by 2006. Now, this is a 70 to 80 percent decline since the survey in the 1980s. I think it's alarming," said David Mizrahi, the team leader. The problem, he said, appears to be in the Delaware Bay -- also the controversial source of the red knot's troubles. The area has been called the East Coast's Serengeti because of the natural marvel that unfolds each spring. For eons, most of the Atlantic Coast population of horseshoe crabs have arrived at the bay to lay the eggs of a new generation. In turn, millions of shorebirds migrating from southern wintering grounds land to feast on those eggs -- a crucial meal as they continue their trek to northern breeding grounds. "About 80 percent of the world's population of red knots go through the Delaware Bay on their return north. About 60 percent of the world's population of semipalmated sandpipers come through at the same time," Mizrahi said. "There just doesn't seem to be a major change down in the wintering areas of either the red knot or the semipalmated sandpiper to explain a decline in either species. The Arctic breeding grounds of the red knot also have not changed ... But what we do know is that there have been changes in the stopover area both birds share in North America," he said. New Jersey and Canadian biologists have insisted for years that a decline in horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware Bay is causing the decline in red knots, which fly 10,000 miles from wintering grounds as far south as Tierra del Fuego. Where the birds once found 50,000 eggs per square meter, there are now 20,000. Biologists also have concluded the red knots are arriving in Arctic breeding grounds too underweight to mate.
This is further evidence of the importance of an integrated, hemispheric approach to conserve "Canadian" birds like the Semipalmated Sandpiper. Protection of the shorebird's Arctic breeding grounds is essential, but so too is working together on research and conservation initiatives along migratory pathways and at wintering habitats to ensure that we are addressing all the threats that these shorebirds face. The decline of this little, and little-known, bird is yet one more sign that we can't keep stressing habitats without having large-scale and long-term effects on many interconnected species.

Snowy Owl Visitor
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Snowy Owl Visitor

My colleague Lori received an excited phone call from her husband Peter on Friday, saying that there was a Snowy Owl in a tree outside the suburban business park building where he works. The Snowy Owl was being pestered by many crows but it was resolutely standing its ground in a pine tree in the parking lot. We excitedly asked Peter to get some photos and send them to us. One of Peter's colleagues dashed out and snapped these great photos.

So, what's this owl doing in a parking lot in Ottawa? Snowy Owls breed on the northern tundra, and in some years many of them remain on their breeding grounds year round, hunting diurnally for rodents. Each winter, some Snowy Owls do migrate to areas of southern Canada and the northeastern US. Some winters, however, there are larger Snowy Owl "irruptions" where the owls are seen in larger numbers and in places where they are not regularly seen. It seems that this year is one of those times: Snowy Owls have turned up on Prince Edward Island in large numbers, and birding reports are replete with mentions of Snowy Owls in Ontario and the northeastern US. What's behind these southern irruptions? Conventional wisdom holds that Snowy Owls move south in the winter in years when their main prey source, lemmings, undergo a cyclical population crash. When food levels are low, the owls come further south searching for winter food. Something else that might be coming into play this year is that there was a very good breeding season for Snowy Owls this past summer, because lemming numbers then were high. This combination of a high number of juveniles in the population and what looks like a lemming crash this fall is what is likely behind this Snowy Owl irruption. Here's a great listserv posting that further explains these two factors.
Looks like Eastern Canada might be in for a snowy (owl) Christmas!

More Species at Risk in Canada
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More Species at Risk in Canada

Last week I wrote about attending the species assessment meeting of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC) in Canada. The committee has released the results of its deliberations, and it has added 21 species (or species populations) to the list of species it has assessed as being at risk of extinction in Canada. With these new additions, there are now 577 wildlife species in various COSEWIC risk categories (endangered, threatened, special concern, and extirpated).

Newly assessed species include Snapping Turtle and Band-tailed Pigeon, two long-lived species whose demography (long life span, late age at first reproduction, low recruitment to the adult population) and threats (including harvesting and habitat loss for both species and road mortality for Snapping Turtles) have resulted in their classification as species of special concern. The Roundnose Grenadier, a marine fish of the east coast whose population declined 98% from 1974 to 1994, was declared endangered. The full results of the assessments are available here.What does this mean for wildlife in Canada? Species are facing mounting threats every day (habitat loss, pollution, climate change, etc.) and the ever increasing list of species at risk in Canada reflects that. There are also many other species in Canada that are likely at risk and have simply not yet been assessed by scientific experts. Undoubtedly we are losing species without even knowing about it, particularly in poorly-known taxonomic groups like arthropods.
Now that 21 new species have been identified as at risk, the next hurdle is to make sure each one is legally protected under the federal Species at Risk Act. The first step in the process toward full protection under the Act is for a species to be legally listed - a feat that is in no way assured, despite the COSEWIC assessment.
The government of Canada carries out socio-economic analyses of potential listing decisions, which can be biased towards the economic impacts of listing on industry, and fail to take into account the "full cost accounting" of a listing decision which includes equal consideration of the ecological value of protecting the species. As we do with all species listed under the Act, we'll be watching closely and urging swift action to grant the necessary protection of these 21 species to ensure their survival and ultimate recovery.

Status of Endangered Animals and Other Species to be Assessed This Week
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Status of Endangered Animals and Other Species to be Assessed This Week

Starting Tuesday, I'll be attending a meeting of experts as they assess the status of 21 Canadian species (and species populations) suspected of being at risk of extinction or extirpation. The meeting is held by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent expert committee that uses science and Aboriginal or community knowledge to identify and assess species at risk. Species that COSEWIC assesses as at risk are subsequently considered by the government for listing under the Species at Risk Act. Twelve of the 21 species up for consideration are ones that COSEWIC will be assessing for the first time at this meeting. This includes Band-tailed Pigeon, which is North America’s largest pigeon and is found in Canada in British Columbia. Not to be confused with the introduced Rock Pigeon, the Band-tailed Pigeon is a native species, and frequently feeds on berries and seeds at the top of trees. Band-tailed Pigeons have experienced a steady population decline since the 1960s, and as a result the National Audubon Society considers them a watch-list species. Nine species/populations are scheduled to be re-assessed by COSEWIC. The committee reviews the status of all assessed species every ten years, or more frequently if it believes that the status of species has changed. Species to be re-assessed at this meeting include the Lake Chubsucker (a freshwater fish found in Ontario, currently designated as Threatened), and five populations of both transient and resident Killer Whales from the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Northeast Pacific southern resident Killer Whale population, currently listed as endangered, is doing particularly poorly – there are only 83 animals left in this population which has declining birth rates and poor condition, possibly due to a shortage of the salmon that they feed on. Recently, a coalition of environmental groups launched legal action against the feds in order to get them to comply with their own Species at Risk Act and protect the critical habitat of these whales. I will be attending the COSEWIC meeting in the role of “continuing observer,” a position that Nature Canada has held for four years. Nature Canada has a long history of involvement in COSEWIC – we were a founding member of the committee and sat at the assessment table for many years. We continue to be involved as an observer to ensure that the assessment process remains rigorous and unbiased, and to learn as much as possible about the assessed species so that we can fight for them to be added to the legal list of species given protection under the Species at Risk Act.

Photo of Band-tailed Pigeon: Jim Dubois

Western Sandpiper Secret Revealed – It’s the Biofilm!
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Western Sandpiper Secret Revealed – It’s the Biofilm!

For many years, researchers have wondered why the huge mudflats of Roberts Bank, near Vancouver, are so special to migrating Western Sandpipers. Every year around 2 million Western Sandpipers stop to rest and refuel on these mudflats. This is a substantial proportion of the world's population of this shorebird species. The area's key importance for Western Sandpipers is one of the reasons why the entire Boundary Bay - Roberts Bank - Sturgeon Bank - Fraser River Estuary area around Vancouver is recognized as a globally significant Important Bird Area.

Now, recent research has revealed that the Western Sandpipers feeding at Roberts Bank rely heavily on what is called "biofilm": a thin, dense layer of microbes, organic detritus and sediment which is all stuck to the mudflats in a mucous-like matrix. The Environment Canada biologist involved in the study points out that this matrix comprises a mucopolysaccharide, which is essentially, umm...snot. The snot binds the microorganisms to the mud and as a result they don't wash away with tidal action. Biofilm's not unique to Roberts Bank, but the area produces a lot of it because of the nature of the tidal action and the nutrients in the area that come from the Fraser River.
It turns out that the Western Sandpipers at Roberts Bank, numerous and ravenous little feeders that they are, consume up to 20 tonnes of biofilm a day. Biofilm accounts for 45 - 59% of the sandpipers' total diet, and an average of 50% of their daily energy requirements during migration. This study is the first report of biofilm feeding for a higher vertebrate (previously it was thought that only invertebrates and a few specialized fish consumed biofilm). A slow mode video taken by the researchers highlights the "grazing" technique that the sandpipers use to harvest the biofilm. You can also watch the video below:
  So, why is this important? Well, it helps us to understand just why migrating Western Sandpipers need to stop and refuel at Roberts Bank and not some other nearby mudflat: it's the biofilm. And it highlights the particular importance and challenge of conserving this special place - we need to make sure that the mudflats and their biofilm are safeguarded. There is already a large container port, and all its associated traffic, close to where the sandpipers feed, and a projected port expansion could have serious impacts to the habitat (including the biofilm) in the area. We need to make sure the locations where the sandpipers eat, as well as what they are eating, are protected. (Photo: T. Kuwae)

State of the World’s Birds featured on CBC’s The Current
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State of the World’s Birds featured on CBC’s The Current

An update to Chris' blog entry from last month: On Friday, David Suzuki hosted the CBC program The Current. Dr. Suzuki interviewed Mike Rands, the CEO of BirdLife International, about the declines of bird species around the world that are highlighted in State of the World's Birds. You can listen to this really interesting interview (as well as lots of other interesting conservation tidbits from the show) here (it's part three of the program).

Thinking Small in my Backyard Garden
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Thinking Small in my Backyard Garden

Image of small plotted garden This year, for the first time, I'm trying my hand at backyard vegetable gardening as a way to eat (very!) locally and teach my daughter about where food comes from. I decided to try out square foot gardening after reading about the high vegetable yields that can be achieved from a small amount of garden space. An added bonus: this intensive method has required little thinning and weeding and no chemical inputs. My square foot garden has 18 one foot by one foot squaresImage of a gray tree frog on lettuce growing everything from Thai basil to cherry tomatoes to peppers to beets. We've been eating fresh radishes, peas, beans, and lettuce for quite a few weeks now, and we are quite enjoying the garden. So is this tree frog who has taken up residence in our lettuce square. It's a Gray Treefrog, showing off his ability to blend in with his lettuce-coloured surroundings.

A Foothold for Piping Plovers in Ontario
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A Foothold for Piping Plovers in Ontario

On my family’s annual beach holiday last month in Maine, we shared the beach with a large enclosure and signs designed to protect the nest of a pair of endangered Piping Plovers from danger (including predatory gulls, beachgoers and dogs). I wasn’t lucky enough to see any plovers, but hopefully this is because they had successfully fledged their chicks and had already departed the beach as a family. The alternative, however – that the nest failed due to disturbance or predation – is an all-too likely scenario for these endangered birds. This possibility has made me think that next year, perhaps a better time for my family to enjoy the beach is at the end of the summer when we definitely won’t be interfering with plovers trying to raise their young. And that brings me to some good news for Piping Plovers in Ontario – last year was the first time in 30 years that Piping Plovers successfully nested on the Ontario shoreline of the Great Lakes. This summer plovers nested again, and it’s thought that a total of three birds fledged from four nests (two nests at Wasaga Beach, one at Sauble Beach, and one at Oliphant). Hopefully, these little birds are headed south for the winter, and it’s time to celebrate the chicks that fledged, toast the many hard-working volunteers who worked tirelessly to naturalize beaches and protect plovers from danger, and start looking forward to an even better year for Ontario plovers next summer.

Photos: Plover sign and fencing at Ocean Park, Maine by Sarah Wren (top); Plover stewards at Sauble Beach by Ted Cheskey (bottom)

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