Manitoba’s Silent Spring: our Disappearing Birds
Almost every source of data, from the volunteer-based Breeding Bird Survey to university-lead research, as well as broad-based summary documents such as the recent "State of the Birds Report" (a U.S report by many partner organizations) point to widespread declines in many bird species in North America. Declines are being documented not just in those species already known to occur in low numbers but also in widespread and "common" species such as the Barn Swallow and Common Grackle. Furthermore, there appears to be no consistent pattern to identify which species are likely to experience declines. Some guilds, such as aerial insectivores, are clearly in trouble; other suites of species that share similar habitats such as grassland specialists are also suffering heavy declines.
The "red list" in Canada grows every year. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) continues to recommend species for listing and more and more of these have passed into the various schedules of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). A few short years ago, only a handful of bird species that breed in Manitoba were listed by COSEWIC, but this is sadly no longer the case. In 2006 the Golden-winged Warbler and Rusty Blackbird gained threatened and special-concern status respectively; in 2007 the Chimney Swift, Common Nighthawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Red-headed Woodpecker all became threatened; in 2008 the Canada Warbler became threatened, in 2009 the Whip-poor-will and Chestnut-collared Longspur were listed as threatened and the Horned Grebe as special concern, and there is every indication that the list will grow in 2010.
In Manitoba we have insufficient data to know how the general trends noted on a continental-scale apply in our area. While Golden-winged Warblers are faring better here than elsewhere, anecdotal evidence suggests that some species are in more trouble than their federal ranking might indicate, the best example being the Baird's Sparrow, listed provincially as endangered but not listed federally. This grassland species, along with several others, has suffered massive declines and a considerable range collapse. Although they once bred as far east as Winnipeg, Baird's Sparrows are now confined in Manitoba to a few sites near the Saskatchewan border.
Under SARA our provincial and federal governments are obligated to protect critical habitat for these species and this obligation has profound implications. This new act is already being tested with highly publicized lawsuits such as the recent Sage Grouse case, where conservation groups have argued that government has not fulfilled its obligations under the act. Foreseeing an insurmountable cumulative burden, some have begun advocating abandoning the endangered-species concept for a more holistic approach such as endangered ecosystem protection or ecosystem management.
This table shows only federally listed species that occur in Manitoba. Year refers to the date of the latest COSWEIC assessment where a change occurred. An asterix indicates that there is some difference in the way subspecies or populations are listed (only subspecies or populations relevant to Manitoba are given). Ivory Gull has very limited occurrence in Manitoba. Red Knot migrates through the province but does not breed in Manitoba. Eskimo Curlew once migrated through Manitoba but is presumed extinct.
The question is fast becoming whether our current socio-economic and legal systems are adequate to facilitate "sustainability". Indeed, as a society, we have hardly even begun to comprehend what sustainability means, nor addressed the more difficult question of what other life forms we foresee living alongside us in our sustainable future and which we will allow to become extinct.
Our current economic system is driven by the principle of economic growth but anyone who studies natural systems will recognize that growth is never sustainable indefinitely and that finite resources impose controls. Ultimately, if we are truly to embrace the concept of sustainability, our entire economic model will require a radical rethinking. We will need to reconsider how we measure resource extraction and consumption and how we monitor our own activities as a species that is part of a larger, interdependent community. We will need to find ways to ensure that the fundamental processes that drive ecosystems and keep landscapes "whole" (rather than a matrix of fragmented habitat patches) remain intact.
Even if we are not yet close enough to the cliff edge to muster the energy necessary for immediate radical change, there is an increasing number of citizens engaged in grassroots movements to monitor the ecosystems that sustain us and, by so doing, to prepare society to attend to changes in natural systems before they become irreversible . In our province, one such citizen-science effort, the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, will soon begin to address the need for more comprehensive baseline data on the distribution and abundance of Manitoba birds. This activity will not stem the tide of declines in bird populations; however, engaging and empowering citizens to monitor the environment in their own backyard may ultimately be the only way to inspire governments to begin to take the radical steps necessary to protect the planet and the family of life into which we were born.
If you would like to participate in the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, contact Dr. Artuso.
Born in Montreal, and currently residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Christiano's educational background is diverse, with a BA in Chinese, an MA in linguistics, and a PhD in Environmental Science. Christiano works for Bird Studies Canada as their Manitoba Projects Manager and sits on the board of Nature Manitoba. He has published articles on Manitoba's avifauna and recently received the Cliff Shaw Award for outstanding contributions to the Blue Jay. Christiano is passionate about conservation and committed to public outreach, regularly giving presentations at venues ranging from schools to scientific conferences. Christiano enjoys traveling and wildlife photography. You can follow his work at his photo site and his blog.
"Manitoba's Silent Spring: our Disappearing Birds' was previously published with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.