This is for the Birds

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Published : July 31st, 2018
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Category : Editorials

A bird nest on our banding route. Note tho Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows on the wire



You do what to those little creatures?! Why?

By Peter McKenzie-Brown


For more than twenty years, my wife Bernie and I have been casual birders. Our life list includes 408 species – a reasonable number when you consider that only 426 birds normally reside in Canada. Our list ranges from the American Avocet, which is common in many North American lakes, to the Eurasian Wryneck, which we saw in Thailand. We often go into the wild to look for birds. The way I see it, birds lure us out of the city into the natural world.

Bluebird eggs....

As our interest in birds grew, we began working with a friend nameb Bill Taylor to band birds – specifically Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows – in a large swathe of foothills around Calgary. Bird banding involves attaching a small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag to the leg of a wild bird. This bit of citizen science helps in keeping track of the movements of individual birds and their life histories.

...And hatchlings

Our efforts are a tiny part of a global effort to better understand our avian friends. We put bands on their legs just before they fledge or, if we capture an adult at the nest, as adults. If banded birds are ever captured again or if someone looks for a little band on their legs after they die, the ornithological community gains a better understanding of their migration patterns and changes in behaviour of these species over a well-defined period of time.

I think the practice of bird banding is a logical continuation of birdwatching. It reflects the simple reality that people need nature to be happy – and little in nature is lovelier than birds and birdsong in the wild. Tragically, in my view, many millions of songbirds and others are now at risk because of recent political developments south of our border.


Technical Advances

Banders and their assistants tend to be retired women and men – in roughly equal numbers, according to Bill Taylor, the licensed bander with whom we work. Most birds are migratory, and the North American Migratory Bird Treaty recognizes that all the countries through which they travel on these migrations need to protect them.

Signed into law amid the chaos of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson and King George V of Great Britain signed the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1916 – an event the two countries celebrated in Ottawa just two years ago. In 1918, the US passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – legislation which protected more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs and nests,” except as allowed by permit. When Canada updated her Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1994, we kept the legislation consistent with what were then still US standards.

The result was a far greater understanding of bird migration patterns. For example, in the 1930s an American researcher established that North American birds migrate within the continent through four predictable corridors. It also became clear that billions of birds fledge and migrate from North America’s boreal forest, most of which is in Canada. A strengthened scientific consensus led to growing efforts to protect the boreal lakes and forests, which constitute our biggest hatchery.

Recent technological developments are helping uncover the mysteries of bird migration, yielding detailed data about the hemispheric-scale movements of migratory birds. Most importantly, these technologies provide information about what we can do to better protect birds, using increasingly sophisticated approaches in keeping with advancing technology. For example, satellite tracking and geolocation technologies now provide detailed accounts of when and where birds move and the places they stop in between. This reveals areas where habitat protection is critical. Even isotopes and genetic markers are now part of the toolkit.

For banders like Bill Taylor, a computer program named Bandit is the latest in a series of desktop applications aimed at helping bird banders manage and submit their data for banded birds. Its use makes the process of maintaining banding records as simple as possible. Bandit was created by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory at a wildlife research centre in Maryland. Banders use the no-charge software to store data obtained during banding operations. At the end of the banding season, they use it to transfer their data to an Ottawa agency, which shares its data with the American agency.



A Collapsing Environment?

These efforts long ago established that migratory birds need intact habitats, vast in extent, to preserve their places in our natural world. These habitats range from breeding habitat (to a large degree in Canada) to wintering ranges, with innumerable habitats in between – especially in and around wetlands. The boreal annually exports somewhere between three billion five billion birds to populate the winter ecosystems of the Americas – from southern Canada and the contiguous American states into Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

This critical nesting ground, however, has long been at risk due to increasing development pressures and climate change. These likely unstoppable developments in recent years have been joined by another threat. America’s Trump government has signed decree which in large degree guts this policy. America’s Interior Department issued a legal opinion that reinterpreted the act to exclude “incidental take.”

Previously, the new interpretation argued, fear of “unlimited potential for criminal prosecution” strongly encouraged cat owners from letting their pets attack migratory birds, for example. Similarly, drivers who accidentally killed birds with their cars might be charged with crimes. In practice, however, the act has never been enforced this way. It is applied to cases of gross negligence where potential harm should have been anticipated and avoided, such as discharging water contaminated with toxic pesticides into a pond used by migratory birds.

According to Professor Amanda Rodewald, who serves as director of conservation science at Cornell University’s ornithology, industry will be the primary beneficiary of this new interpretation. “This new reading of the law means,” she says, that “corporations and others who fill in wetlands will escape liability for actions that could kill millions of birds every year.”

It’s enough to make a birder cry.


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Peter McKenzie Brown is the vice president of a resource company. He has written several volumes of history, and has worked in the corporate and academic worlds. He is British by birth, American by upbringing and Canadian by choice. Disclaimer : Although the writer is a director and officer of Stratabound, the thoughts and views herein are his only and not those of Stratabound. He is not registered in any jurisdiction as a broker or investment adviser, so nothing herein should be construed as advice on whether to buy, sell or hold shares of Stratabound or any other company mentioned herein.
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