Canada’s Boreal Forest, Stopover for Billions of Birds, Merits Greater Protection

Emerging science shows area’s biodiversity is vital to migratory species

Canada’s Boreal Forest, Stopover for Billions of Birds, Merits Greater Protection
Jeff Wells
Ornithologist Jeff Wells looks out over the Kennebec River in central Maine while searching for warblers and sparrows migrating south after the summer nesting season in Canada’s boreal forest.
Allison Childs Wells

Canada’s boreal forest is known as North America’s bird nursery for good reason: It’s the breeding ground for almost half the birds on the continent. The boreal is also in need of greater protection, and now is a prime time to achieve that, as the Canadian government has pledged to protect 17 percent of its land area by 2020 under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and Indigenous governments within the country are rapidly advancing their efforts to safeguard their ancestral lands.

To learn more about boreal bird habitat, Steve Ganey, senior director of marine conservation and fisheries at The Pew Charitable Trusts, spoke with Jeff Wells, science and policy director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative and science adviser for the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, of which Pew is a member.

Q: What makes the boreal so attractive to birds?

A: The boreal forest biome is one of the largest on Earth, stretching from Alaska to the Atlantic coast in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s one of the last areas on Earth that has been largely untouched by large-scale human industrial activities [and includes] myriad habitats—jack pine forests, spruce forests, balsam fir forests, areas with birches and aspens, peat lands, tundra-like areas up near the coast, huge lakes and rivers, and wetlands. All that makes it an amazing place for birds.

Over 300 bird species regularly occur in the boreal forest each summer. Moving like a huge wave, they begin their migration from their wintering grounds in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and the U.S. and arrive in the boreal to nest, primarily in June and July.

Q: Why do they migrate from the Caribbean, up north to Canada? 

A: That’s a key question that biologists have pondered for a long time. Thoughts are that the birds are going to places where there is less competition. In the tropics, there’s all kinds of birds and other animals vying for the same space, and a lot of predators, diseases, and different kinds of things that impact them.

In the boreal, there’s less overall competition and a huge food source—amazing amounts of insects that make incredibly good food for birds. It’s this sort of pristine area where birds can raise their young and fatten up before they head south again.

Q: How important are large, contiguous tracts of protected land for nesting birds?

A: Early bird conservationists used to think about protecting small spots on the map. For example, in the U.S., conservationists tried to protect the one little area that was important for certain kinds of ducks, herons, trumpeter swans, etc.

What they found was that birds migrate, so one little space isn’t going to protect birds. And secondly, the more space you have, the more you make the habitat and the bird populations more resilient to all of the perturbations of weather, predators, and various kinds of problems. Big chunks of habitat are super important.

Q: Why is the United Nations CBD and Canada’s commitment to it so vital to birds?

A: Having a global goal of raising the amount of area that’s protected for biodiversity obviously benefits any living thing. And for the birds that nest in the boreal forest, maintaining these nurseries is going to be particularly critical given that this area is one of the last largely intact ecosystems on Earth. This is one of our last chances to protect something while it’s still in its natural, original state.

The CBD calls for protecting 17 percent of terrestrial areas by 2020, but the newest science is telling us we need to protect 40 to 70 percent, depending on the type of ecosystem and the species that occur there. There’s discussion of raising protections to 30 percent of land areas, which is probably below what we need but would get us closer to a sustainable system that keeps everything in balance and healthy.

Q: What are some of the innovative ways progress is being made toward that goal?

A: The Canadian government has done something that few governments have done, which is to commit $1.3 billion in its nature fund to try to achieve the 17 percent protection. And, one of the most important ways of protecting millions of acres at a time and increasing the pace of protection has been the work of Indigenous nations, many of which are proposing Indigenous Protected Areas and partnering with Canada on new parks.

Indigenous peoples are aware of changes on the landscape that threaten their traditional ways of living and harvesting. And because of legal challenges, the Canadian federal, provincial, and territorial governments recognize that Indigenous peoples have more power than before and are exerting that influence to ensure that their lands are managed in a sustainable way.

Q: What’s the latest science on how birds migrate, and how is that influencing protection efforts?

A: Migration studies are changing at such a rapid pace due to new technology. A recent blackpoll warbler study put geolocator devices on birds from Alaska and at locations to the east and found the Alaska birds leave earliest and end up on the Atlantic coast of North America about the same time as the birds that depart from farther east. All these birds gather to “fuel up” for a month or so. And, then, within a few weeks of each other, they all take off. And most of them fly about a 60-hour direct flight, all the way to South America in the fall.

In the spring they move back north, stopping in the Caribbean and in the U.S. Again, the Alaska birds leave earliest from South America.

We tend to think that birds could stop anywhere, but there may be places, even within the boreal, that are vital for them to rest or feed—places with a certain type of insect or other type of food that a subspecies might need, for example. There’s so much to learn about how they’re using areas, their stopover places, and places important for nesting. The next wave of research is to study that same species over its entire range.

Q: Migratory Bird Day is May 11. What is your special story for this year?

A: I just saw an interesting story about a whimbrel, which is kind of a chicken-sized shore bird, with a long, down-curved bill. They nest in parts of the boreal, along Hudson Bay, as well as up in the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and some other parts of the Arctic up there.

Over the last decade, various groups have been studying whimbrel migrations by putting little backpacks on them that send satellite signals.

They tracked one, which they nicknamed Pingo for a long time, including on a multiday, nonstop flight from the Maritimes toward South America. She ran into a hurricane. Researchers could see her position, even when she was 500 miles from land, and they were sending out maps showing where she was. Pingo was slowed down, but finally made it around the hurricane to northern South America after four or five days of nonstop flying, with no place to land over the ocean.

Just studying this individual opened up this view into the Herculean efforts that birds go through to make this migration. Their strength, that they can make this long trip, and make it back, and nest again—and then do it over.