Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Boreal Habitats and Birds at Risk

Oscar Lake in the Northwest Territories
©D. Langhorst, Ducks Unlimited
Three conservation organizations (Nature Canada, NRDC, and the Boreal Songbird Initiative) have issued a report discussing the threats to birds in three areas of the boreal forest that are currently coming under increasing pressure from human activity. You can view a quick summary, a press release, or the full report (pdf). The forests and wetlands of the boreal are home to billions of birds from over 300 species, which use the habitats for nesting, and in some cases wintering, territories. That includes more than half of the world populations of 96 species. Alterations to those habitats, especially to water quality, will effect how well they can support bird life. Many species that breed in the boreal forest winter in the United States or further south. Changes in boreal habitats could, in turn, affect how many birds we see during spring and fall migrations.

Major flyways coming out of Canada's boreal forest
©Boreal Songbird Initiative
Here are a few affected areas discussed in the report:
  • In the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands, forests were flooded as part of hydroelectric projects. The area provides breeding habitat for 28 waterfowl, 21 other waterbirds, and 19 shorebird species. Hydroelectric energy is clean in the sense that it does not produce carbon emissions, but it comes with the cost of lost breeding grounds for birds and contaminated fishing areas for native inhabitants.
  • At the Peace-Athabasca Delta, tar sands mining is reducing water quality, and flows have dropped. The delta is recognized as a global IBA and a significant wetland under the Ramsar Convention. It is home to 215 bird species, including the endangered Whooping Crane, which breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park. The delta itself is protected, but the waters flowing into the delta are not, and those upstream activities threaten the productivity of the wetlands downstream.
  • Logging activity in the Lake Superior Watershed is reducing biodiversity and removing important food sources for the millions of birds that live there. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake on earth and drains over 49,000 square miles, much of which lies in the boreal forest. Bird species that breed in this watershed include several that depend on spruce budworm outbreaks, which are reduced when timber companies spray with pesticides.
Rusty Blackbird
©Jeff Nadler
The boreal forest provides habitat for threatened species such as the Rusty Blackbird, Yellow Rail, and Whooping Crane. Conserving those and other species will require maintaining human activities in the forests at a sustainable level.