| Feb 19, 2009

Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - February 19, 2009 Conserving Ontario’s BirdsBy Steve Blight

News reports about the status of the world’s birds are common these days, and are generally not very encouraging. Although it is clear that the populations of many of the world’s bird species are declining, the picture is less clear when we take a look at “our” birds – the birds of the Land O’Lakes.

Unfortunately it isn’t possible to sum up in one statement how the birds in our area are doing. The overall picture is complicated, and is made up of the sum of all the parts, i.e. one has to look at how each individual species is doing and then integrate all of this information together. Moreover, the picture changes from place to place and over time – birds that may be doing poorly in one area may be doing better down the road, in the next county or in another province. The reality is that populations of some of our bird species are declining, some are increasing and some are more or less holding steady.

People in the bird conservation field place birds into four broad categories: landbirds, shorebirds, waterbirds, and waterfowl. Except for a few iconic species like loons and herons, landbirds are the birds that people in the Land O’Lakes probably encounter most often. Landbirds are those birds whose life cycles are largely terrestrial, and they make up more than half of all the birds that occur regularly in Ontario – including all the songbirds, birds of prey and many game birds like grouse.

Although it isn’t possible to generalize with 100% accuracy, a review of the population status and trends of the major groups of Ontario’s migratory landbirds does reveal some interesting patterns. Bird Studies Canada (BSC) has a wonderful website jam-packed with the latest information on bird conservation that helps shed light on the question of how North American birds are doing.

According to BSC, some groups of migratory landbirds appear to be mostly holding their own, including birds of prey and habitat generalists like American Robins and the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Forest birds, so-called “shrub-land” birds and marsh birds show a mixed pattern – populations of some species like the Purple Finch, Brown Thrasher and Belted Kingfisher are in decline while others such as the Chipping Sparrow and several warbler species remain stable or are even increasing.

Two groups of migratory landbirds appear to be in real trouble in Ontario, as they are throughout their North American ranges: grassland birds, and a group of birds known as aerial foragers.

Ontario’s grasslands include small patches of native tall-grass prairie in southern Ontario and extensive areas of pasture and hayfields. Birds like the Bobolink and the Eastern Meadowlark call these grasslands home. Five of the nine grassland birds with good population data show moderate to severe long-term declines. For example, the population of Bobolinks in Ontario has been reduced to less that half of what it was 20 years ago.

Loss of habitat is thought to be the main reason for the decline of grassland birds in Ontario and elsewhere. In our area, abandonment of pasture and marginal farmland and its return to forest is an important factor. Possible measures to help slow the decline of grassland birds include avoiding disturbing birds during the nesting period and creating and maintaining patches of suitable grassland habitat of at least 25 to 75 acres.

Arial foragers are birds that catch insects in flight, including swallows, swifts, whip-poor-wills and nighthawks. Around the world, populations of many of these birds are in sharp decline. The same pattern holds true in Ontario, where moderate to severe declines are being seen in all aerial foragers. Populations of Chimney Swift and Common Nighthawk have undergone severe long-term declines, and the rate of decline appears to be accelerating. The cause of their widespread decline is a mystery, although climate change and changes in the availability of insects are possible reasons. So if you think you are seeing fewer swallows than “in the old days”, you are probably right.

While the news about the plight of the world’s birds may seem alarming, there is good news out there as well. Take the case of the Eastern Bluebird, which was formerly threatened in Ontario. As a result of nest box programs and other conservation actions by dedicated lovers of this handsome member of the thrush family, the bluebird has made a dramatic comeback, and it is no longer considered to be at risk. Since 1968, the Ontario bluebird population has increased by more than 7% annually – and that is something to chirp about!

Please feel free to report any observations to Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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