Birds are widespread, readily observed, feed at many levels of the food web, and are responsive to environmental change, making them good indicators of ecosystem health. Birds play an important ecological role, providing food for other species, dispersing seeds, controlling insects, pollinating plants, and modifying habitat. Many also have economic and cultural significance – providing humans with food, recreation, enjoyment, and study and playing an important role in many cultures.
Over the past 20 years, the status of the world’s birds has deteriorated, with more species moving closer to extinction.1 Of particular concern are declines in formerly common species.1 In the last 40 years, 20 common North American bird species lost over 50% of their populations.1, 2 Birds are also shifting their ranges northward in response to climate change – nearly 60% of the 305 species found in North America in winter moved northward by an average of 1.4 km per year (56 km over the last 40 years)3 and breeding ranges of southern North American species have shifted north by an average of 2.4 km per year.4
Canada provides crucial breeding, migrating, and wintering habitat for a significant percentage of the world populations of many species. Nevertheless, the status and trends of birds in Canada are only partially understood. Good data exist for many species, particularly in southern Canada; however, only localized data exist for many others, particularly in the North.
This section is further divided into the following four topics:
Sixty percent of North American shorebirds breed in the Arctic, with the Canadian Arctic providing 75% of the breeding range for 15 of 49 common species.5 Canada has migration sites of great importance as well, including at least three of hemispheric significance – the Bay of Fundy, the Fraser River estuary, and Chaplin/Old Wives/Reed Lakes in Saskatchewan.6 Some southern breeding areas, for example the Prairies, are of global importance to some species.7
Data on shorebird populations are patchy in Canada, but most information indicates declining trends.7-9 Of the 35 species examined in 2000, 49% showed significant declines somewhere in their range.5 The most complete datasets in Canada include the Breeding Bird Survey and the Atlantic Canada Shorebird Survey. Results from these surveys indicate:
Potential causes of declines of shorebirds include loss and degradation of habitat, climate change, changes in predator regimes (for example, increasing numbers of peregrine falcons may cause shorebirds to move through an area more quickly, leading to an apparent decline13), human disturbance, contaminants, and disease.5 Changes are expected to accelerate due to anticipated changes in Arctic breeding habitat,14 as well as flooding and droughts elsewhere in shorebird ranges7 as a result of climate change.
Populations of northern gannets like this one on Bonaventure Island, Quebec, have increased in North America since the 1950s
Worldwide, the status of seabirds is deteriorating faster than any other bird group.1 In Canada, trends are regional in nature and result from a variety of factors, including climate change, fishing by-catch, resource extraction, transportation, and pollution.15-20 A trend to an earlier breeding date has been found in several populations,21-23 as have changes in diet and condition.24
Waterfowl have been monitored cooperatively by Canada and the U.S. since 1948. Concern over declines in populations in the 1980s led to the development of a large international cooperative initiative, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, to address the declines. Although many duck populations fluctuate widely among years and regions, overall trends for most inland breeding ducks show increases or no significant change between 1961 and 2009.43, 44 Nevertheless, the populations of some species remain low; for example, northern pintail, American wigeon, and greater and lesser scaup have declined significantly in the prairie and western boreal regions.43, 44
Approximately 70% of scaup and ringnecked ducks breed in the western boreal forest and the two species share many life history traits.45 Nevertheless, scaup declined at an average of 1.7% per year between 1961 and 2009 while ring-necked ducks increased by 2.5% per year.43 Reasons for the decline in scaup remain unclear but hypotheses include: contamination or change in food resources; and reduced female survival or reproductive success due to changes in the boreal forest.46, 47 Another possible cause is a mismatch between timing of nesting and food availability due to temperature change for late- nesting species such as scaup.45 Population declines have also been found in other late-nesting species such as scoters.43, 45 Ring-necked ducks breed earlier.
Over 90% of the world population of American black ducks breed in eastern Canada48 and the population declined by almost 50% between 1955 and 1985.49 One of the most abundant ducks in eastern Canada, the population has been stable at about 450,000 since 1990, although declines continue in the Mixedwood Plains.43, 44 Causes for the decline are not clear but likely include habitat loss due to development and agriculture49, 50 and displacement through competition with mallards,51 which have been expanding in abundance and range.49, 50, 52 Population increases in other areas could be due to changes in management practices, such as increased hunting restrictions.53
Data for sea ducks are limited because most breed in remote, inaccessible areas in the North.43 Existing data show a mix of trends. Reasons for declines are largely unknown,43 but declines in eiders may be related to harvest and avian cholera may be an issue.54
mergansers in prairie, boreal, and Atlantic regions
common goldeneye in prairie and Atlantic regions
bufflehead in prairie and boreal regions
scoters in prairie and boreal
surf scoters in Atlantic43 regions
long-tailed duck in boreal regions
Arctic breeding populations of eiders54-58
Populations of landbirds in all habitat types except forest declined significantly from 1968 to 2006.35 No significant positive trends in any landbird groupings (by habitat, by foraging, or by migration strategy) were evident between 1968 and 2006, although significant positive trends were found for some individual species.35
grassland bird, declined by 77%
bird of other open habitat, declined by 45%
urban bird, increased by over 200%
shrub bird, declined by 48%
forest bird, increased by 30%