We must act now to protect birds in Canada
The laws are outdated, not enough, say Savannah Carr-Wilson, Calvin Sandborn and Stephen Hazell.
Migratory birds lend grace and beauty to our lives. From the heron silently stalking fish at dawn, to the haunting call of the loon, to the majestic glide of swans to pond, these birds enrich us.
They also benefit us in practical ways. They control insects that damage farms and forests, and disperse seeds and pollinate plants. They are central to the diet and culture of Indigenous groups. Bird watching and waterfowl hunting contribute billions of dollars to Canada’s economy.
But the birds are in deep trouble. A shocking UBC study recently found that seabird populations have declined 70 per cent since the 1950s. Canadian shorebird, grassland bird, and aerial insectivore populations have plunged 42 to 64 per cent since the 1970s.
In fact, one-third of North America’s bird species risk extinction if action is not taken.
The good news is that migratory birds faced a similar crisis a century ago — and we protected them then. With concerted effort, we can do it again.
One hundred years ago, populations of migratory birds such as the trumpeter swan, whooping crane, brant goose and wood duck declined dramatically. This decline was caused by overhunting — and by the slaughter of five million birds a year to provide decorative feathers for women’s hats.
Audubon Societies were formed across North America to stop the senseless killing, and in 1916 the U.S. and Canada signed the Migratory Birds Convention. The 1917 Migratory Birds Convention Act successfully met the threat to birds and controlled the hunting.
But a century later, the law fails to protect birds from two key modern threats — incidental destruction caused by industrial activities, and loss of habitat. It fails to protect the millions of birds, nests and eggs inadvertently destroyed every year by industries and activities such as farming and forestry, roadside mowing, and collisions with skyscrapers/transmission lines. Ottawa knows this “incidental take” of birds is a major problem. Government started drafting laws to regulate it — but shut down the reform work in 2010.
Furthermore, the Act offers little habitat protection — even though habitat destruction is the chief threat that birds face.
There are also problems with the special “Migratory Bird Sanctuaries” established under the Act. These sanctuaries were created to provide a safe refuge for migratory birds — it is theoretically illegal to carry on unauthorized activities harmful to migratory birds, eggs, nests, or habitat there. Yet intensive industrial and marina development has badly compromised sanctuaries like Sidney’s Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary and Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
In addition, there is surprising confusion between Ottawa and B.C. over which government is legally responsible for enforcing the Migratory Birds Convention Act in certain sanctuaries. As a result, neither government is doing much protective enforcement in “sanctuaries” such as Shoal Harbour.
Clearly, we need to strengthen the Migratory Birds Convention Act. Concerned citizens can help protect the birds by calling on the federal government to:
Resume its 2010 efforts to regulate “incidental take” of birds, eggs, and nests — focusing on key industries.
Scientifically identify key habitat outside of current sanctuaries — and fully protect those areas. For example, new parks could fit with the federal goal of conserving 17 per cent of Canada’s land and freshwater in protected areas by 2020.
Clarify with B.C. which government is responsible for enforcement in migratory bird sanctuaries — and get somebody to start enforcing the law there.
In addition, governments need to revamp permitting policies for new developments in bird sanctuaries. The law should bar such new development until proper environmental assessments are conducted.
A century ago, Canada helped solve an urgent crisis. Today, migratory birds face a new crisis and Canadians again have an opportunity to step forward and protect birds.
If we act decisively, our great-grandchildren will thank us for this grace and beauty.