Richard J. Cannings and Peter J.A. Davidson
We relate to birds. They are active by day, and have colourful plumage, interesting behaviour, and communicate with lively, complex sounds. We share their sensory world, and their songs become part of the soundtrack of our lives. With a little effort, we can learn to identify them using the same cues they use to identify themselves.
Birds open our eyes to the fact that the natural world and the human world are one and the same. That realization can reveal to us the impacts that human civilization is having on the biosphere that nurtures us, birds and all other living things. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 to alert the world to the insidious and widespread effects of DDT and other pesticides. In choosing the title, she did not emphasize the billions of fish that were being poisoned, or the buildup of contaminants in whale blubber; instead she pointedly used our love of birds as a succinct two-word warning.
Wherever one goes, there are birds: ptarmigan hidden among alpine rocks, puffins diving deep into the ocean, rails calling from seemingly impenetrable marshes, pigeons cooing atop downtown buildings. And wherever there are birds, there are people watching them, as they have for millennia, whether seafarers or farmers, naturalists or artists. People have good cause to value birds and care deeply about them.
Because bird populations are diverse and abundant, and use a wide variety of habitats, their numbers and behaviours are indicators of the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. Since there is also an army of birders willing to count birds on a daily basis, we can often obtain meaningful estimates of bird population trends, and even figure out why some populations are increasing and others are declining. This is a more challenging task for other animal groups. Many mammals are small, cryptically coloured, difficult to identify and nocturnal, reptiles and amphibians are generally not diverse enough to inform us about wide varieties of habitats, while insects are far too diverse and difficult to identify. Fish are entirely aquatic and almost impossible to count without catching them. As a group, only birds give us the opportunity to assess broad-scale ecosystem health.
Super, Natural British Columbia
British Columbia is a truly extraordinary place. Its scenic beauty is legendary, yet what sets this province apart from all other parts of North America and the temperate world is its exceptional diversity. The tectonic forces that built British Columbia created a myriad of mountain ranges that eons of wind, rain and ice have carved into complex systems of plateaus, valleys, canyons and floodplains. The mountain ranges bear the brunt of Pacific storms coming in from the west and divide the province into climatic bands of warm and cold, wet and dry.
This interaction of geology, climate, and history has produced an astonishing diversity of natural life, from the cold, rich currents of the Pacific Ocean coursing between islands and peninsulas covered with towering rainforests, to the cactus-studded grasslands of the arid southern valleys, the pine- and spruce-carpeted central plateaus, and finally to the high peaks, where cushion plants and larks crouch in the fell fields. With habitat diversity comes species diversity; more bird species breed in British Columbia than in any other North American province or state outside Texas.
This diversity has challenged ecologists in their attempts to map the ecosystems of British Columbia. Vladimir Krajina produced one of the first comprehensive modern zonal maps in North America with his concept of British Columbian biogeoclimatic zones in the 1960s. Krajina’s system used a combination of climate, soils, and dominant plants to define 16 zones that indicated the potential ecosystems throughout the province. In the 1990s, Dennis Demarchi created an ecoregional classification that brought climate and physiography together to define nine major ecoprovinces and a much larger number of subregions in the province. Together, these two concepts go a long way to explaining the distributions of many bird species, especially when combined with the finer-scale mapping of habitats.
Humans have had large impacts on the ecosystems of British Columbia, especially over the past century. Most agricultural and urban development has occurred on the flat lands and rich soils of the valley bottoms, and that is precisely where the greatest biodiversity of this province is found. Valley bottoms have also been impacted in some parts of the province by major hydroelectric projects that replaced rich river floodplains with enormous reservoirs.
Much of the forested land in British Columbia has been harvested at least once, resulting in a significant loss of older forests and a correspondingly large increase in the area of younger forests. Many bird and other wildlife species are closely tied to age-dependent forest habitats, so conventional harvesting regimes directly impact forest-dwelling species. Since most of these harvested forests will be re-harvested before they return to an old-growth state, the overall diversity of forest wildlife will remain suppressed.
Over the past century, mean winter temperatures have risen by 2°C and summer temperatures by 1°C. Climate change projections indicate that this trend will continue, with shorter, warmer, wetter winters and longer, hotter, drier summers. This combination has already triggered the biggest Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) epidemic in history, killing over 18 million hectares of forest between 1999 and the present. Drought-stricken forests are susceptible to catastrophic summer wildfires, especially in the dry forests of the interior. Climate projections suggest that the Interior Cedar-Hemlock Biogeoclimatic Zone will greatly expand over the next century, as will the Bunchgrass zone, while tundra zones will decrease dramatically as treelines rise across the province. River flow regimes will be altered as well, with earlier, smaller spring freshets, longer periods of summer low water, and more flood events in winter.
Joining Forces for British Columbia’s Birds
The first report on the health of Canada’s bird populations, covering the past 40 years―The State of Canada’s Birds 2012―had two main messages. Firstly, almost half of the bird species in Canada are showing significant population declines, and we must quickly discover the causes of those declines and take action to enable those populations to stabilize and increase. Secondly, about a third of Canadian bird species are actually increasing in numbers, many of them raptors and waterfowl that suffered severe declines in the past century. This shows that when we can identify the cause of a population decline and have the political will to correct it, the results can be positively dramatic. Falcons, eagles, ospreys and hawks declined sharply after the introduction of DDT into Canadian ecosystems, but almost every species has bounced back after DDT use was banned in the 1970s. Waterfowl declined through the early 1900s due to overhunting and loss of wetland habitats, but most are showing a clear comeback after hunting regulations were adjusted, and bold steps were taken to restore marshes and ponds.
Three-quarters of Canada’s birds are migratory. They fly north in spring to take advantage of the long days of the Canadian summer and hordes of bugs to raise their young, then return to warmer regions of the Americas when Canada is cloaked in snow. Some, including several ducks, grebes and gulls, winter on the Pacific Coast in British Columbia, then fly east to the Canadian Prairies to nest. Conserving birds in Canada thus requires a truly cooperative approach, involving almost every country, state and province in the Americas. It also involves much more than government action―individuals, corporations, and non-government organizations must also play roles, for each has their own strengths.
Governments have mandates to conserve through major legislation, such as the federal Migratory Birds Conservation Act, the Species at Risk Act, the National Parks Act, and the British Columbia Wildlife Act, Forest and Range Practices Act, and Protected Areas of British Columbia Act. Both federal and provincial government work is becoming more and more regulatory through policies like environmental assessment, and their budgets for conservation work are increasingly limited.
Non-government organizations (NGOs) with wildlife and habitat conservation and outreach missions, play a range of roles from environmental education to conservation stewardship and land acquisition. Many NGOs now have large member and donor bases, and the capacity to manage and restore habitats, conduct monitoring and outreach work, and advocate for improved practices and processes for conservation. Some international NGOs are in a unique position to advance conservation in many or all parts of migratory bird ranges, through initiatives like the BirdLife International Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas program and the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
Industry has regulatory responsibilities regarding planning for, and extraction of, natural resources, and alterations to habitat from development. Companies have responsibilities to members and shareholders, and many industry business plans espouse sustainability and environmental responsibility. The very large scales at which industries can influence the character of habitats and landscapes place them in a unique position to effect conservation gains through best practices and appropriate planning and mitigation.
The role of individuals varies from donating resources or equipment to contributing their time as volunteers. Wildlife-watching, especially birdwatching, is one of the most popular past-times among North Americans, Canadians and British Columbians. Birders the world over like to indulge in their passion with a purpose, and welcome the opportunity to contribute to a major survey. Popularly known as citizen scientists, these amateur naturalists willing to donate their knowledge and skills, are the bedrock of much present day research and monitoring.
One of the most sophisticated and highly respected forms of citizen science is atlassing. The business model for conducting bird atlases in Canada brings multiple players from each of these sectors together, combining complementary strengths toward a common research and stewardship goal. From the grass roots to the upper echelons of government, everyone is connected in a positive force for birds.
The Role of a Bird Atlas in the 21st Century
The first bird atlas was conducted in Great Britain and Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hundreds of birdwatchers scoured all habitats for all birds, noted what they found on paper forms and diligently mailed those into a central coordination office for collation by hand into composite maps. Since then, hundreds of atlases have been completed around the world, covering areas the size of small districts to large countries. Most are now conducted to an international standard of scientific rigour that has gained the widespread respect of policy makers, research scientists, conservation managers, and the general public. Europe is now extending the spatial-coordination frame to the next boundary, and embarking on a continent-wide bird atlas.
At the core of every bird atlas is volunteerism, a feature that has not changed in over half a century. If it were not for the spirit of dedication amongst the birding community worldwide, borne from the belief that their efforts are worthwhile, bird atlases could not happen. What began with birds has now extended to other animal and plant group atlases, but bird atlases remain the most effective simply because of the sheer numbers of people with the skills and knowledge to contribute.
What has evolved significantly, over the past 15 years in particular, is the ingenious application of technology and the digital web environment to enhance how atlases and other bird monitoring programs are operated. Coordination and planning is the most time-consuming and costly part of an atlas project. That aspect has become so much more efficient with electronic communication and web-based platforms for entering, reviewing and mapping data in real-time. It is motivational for contributors to see their efforts fill gaps on coverage maps as soon as their data are entered, and for volunteer Regional Coordinators to watch their regions edge ever closer to their coverage targets. The process of assessing records is greatly simplified by a complex array of built-in checks and balances. Furthermore, modern standards for information storage and exchange enable external datasets from compatible projects to be subsumed, which is especially important for areas that are too challenging for volunteers to access.
Digital improvements to coordination and data storage have naturally led to more sophisticated products and more extensive information sharing. Analyses that model data in well-surveyed areas, and generate realistic projections across unvisited areas, advance with each new atlas project. Most environmental practitioners conduct their work in the digital environment using geographic information systems (GIS). Tables of species records with specific locations and processed digital maps are now the common currency for conservation work; atlases are central to that change. Crowd-sourcing data, as it has become known, is proving to be an immensely valuable tool in understanding how and why bird populations are changing, especially where the programs are designed around both contributors’ and end-users’ needs, exemplified by the eBird program.
The past five years alone have witnessed huge changes in the publishing industry and the way many people receive information. The sea change from printed hard copy media to electronic devices―personal computers and mobile devices especially―is changing the way most of us live our daily lives. Publishing atlases is no exception. The partnership overseeing this atlas project made the difficult but necessary choice to switch from print to online publication, in order to make the products freely available to the widest range of users and interest groups in as cost-effective and timely a manner as possible. Ultimately, the intention is to make a bigger difference for birds, through wider and better informed decision-making that comes from quicker and simpler access to comprehensive, current information. Over the coming years the partnership will continue to put these data to work for birds in as many ways as we can. If you see an opportunity, please write to us and suggest how you might become involved.