Where we work / Audubon Americas / Canada

Boreal Forest Provides Hope in the Face of an Insect Apocalypse

Cliff Swallow peeking out of nest.

Watching Cliff Swallows dart from their gourd-shaped nests under the eaves of the barn searching for insects to feed their rapidly growing young is one of my favorite memories from being a teenager growing up in Maine. Although that same barn still stands in the same place, essentially the same as it was 40 years ago, the swallows are gone now. They’ve been gone for several decades in fact, and they are gone from most of their former nesting places in New England. Cliff Swallows are only one of a group of insect-eating birds in North America that have undergone major declines in the last half-century.

An article written by Brooke Jarvis for the New York Times Magazine several years ago entitled “Insect Apocalypse” helps explain why. In it, Jarvis describes the mounting evidence that the overall numbers of insects on the planet have drastically declined in recent decades. The first major awareness of this problem came from a 2016 academic paper that reported the overall abundance of insects had plummeted by more than 70% in 63 German nature reserves surveyed over the last 27 years.

These alarming drops have major implications for migratory birds and other species that depend on insects. Luckily, the research also points to a powerful solution: conserving large expanses of healthy lands and waterways where living things, including insects, can find refuge.

Places like the North American Boreal Forest (in Canada and Alaska) where there are still an estimated 1.2 billion acres of largely intact forests and wetlands interconnected with countless streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds are especially critical to protect. This massive expanse of vital habitat is estimated to support between one and three billion nesting birds—birds that rely upon an abundance of insects to survive and raise their young.

Insects are an essential part of a healthy planet. As the base of the food chain, abundant insects are required to support the billions of birds, fish, and other animals that rely on them. Bird researchers have independently discovered that some of the fastest declining birds in North America are birds that capture insects in flight—technically known as “aerial insectivores.” This group includes the aptly named flycatchers as well as swallows and nightjars (birds like nighthawks and whip-poor-wills). Sadly, Canada’s official list of federally threatened species now reads like a who’s who of aerial insectivores including the Bank and Barn swallows, Olive-sided Flycatcher, the Common Nighthawk, and the Eastern Whip-poor-will.

At a time when Canada, the U.S., and nations around the globe are striving to reach their international commitment to protect at least 30% of their lands and waters by 2030, moving proposed protected areas more quickly to the finish line needs to be a priority. In Canada, Indigenous governments and communities are leading the way with a multitude of land-use plans and Indigenous Protected Area proposals already on the table or in process.

When humanity is confronted with problems like the “insect apocalypse” and all its implications for the health and future of our world, all of us from individuals up to governments, need to express our support for expediting conservation. Let’s show our support and get behind the Indigenous conservation work happening in the Boreal Forest region of Canada and around the world.