My Reflections on the Release of the "Birds at Risk" Report


For over a year, I have worked with colleagues with National Resources Defence Council and Boreal Songbird Initiative on writing the Birds at Risk: The Importance of Canada’s Boreal Wetlands and Waterways.

It is good to see it out in the public forum. Though I’ve lived most of the my life in southern Canada, I have spent considerable time in the boreal region, first as a Park Naturalist on Lake Superior, and afterwards as an atlasser for the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario – both in the early 1980s, and between 2001 and 2005, with the Quebec Breeding Bird Atlas in 1987, and a range of other trips both related to work and pleasure.

I’ve learned that canoeing is the only viable means of getting around in the summer, that in the Hudson Bay lowlands, even with gloves, long sleeves and a bug net over my head, 64 black flies can bite me under my watch band in one day, that there can still be ice along some of the rivers in late June, and most importantly that the vast forests and river systems are not uninhabited, but rather part of the homelands of First Nations peoples. The bugs, the rapids and the sudden changes in temperature do not scare me . . . but the red tinted water escaping from the mine tailings empoundment, the sickly smell of herbicides from aerial spraying and the distant din of machines do.

I am one of those auditory birders – though I enjoy seeing birds, I love hearing them and find great satisfaction in knowing their voices. The sound scape of the boreal wetlands is unequal for drama and beauty. The Common Loon’s song is at the top of the most emotive and haunting sounds on earth. Add to this the melodic flute-like refrains of Hermit Thrushes, a cheery chorus of White-throated Sparrow, the staccato explosiveness of a Connecticut Warbler’s song, and the emphatic “Whip-three-beers” of the threatened Olive-sided Flycatcher, and you have, in my view, the perfect symphony.
Sadly, members of the orchestra are dropping out as pressures to exploit the rich resources of the boreal accelerate destruction and change, and climate change tightens its grip on these northern biomes.

As manager of bird conservation programs for Nature Canada, I know that part of our mission is to be a voice for nature, including the species that are being silenced. We hope that the messages from this report will be discussed, debated and inform decisions related to this precious biome. This is our chance as a country to make a difference for our children, and their children with our largest ecological contribution to the earth’s health, our boreal forest.