Canada’s Boreal Forest Provides Hope Amid News of Staggering Bird Loss

Billions of birds are born in this northern region every year, and Indigenous Nations are leading the way to ensure it remains protected.

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Is it possible to find good news when you hear of the loss of three billion birds?

A study recently published in Science found there are three billion fewer North American birds than there were in the 1970s. This drastic loss was driven by habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, pollution, and other threats. The news hits like a gut punch to a public already reeling from other recent reports about millions of species becoming endangered, pesticides sickening birds, and insect populations collapsing. 

And yet there is still cause for hope.

The region where billions of North America’s birds are born remains largely healthy and intact. Every year, three to five billion birds emerge from Canada’s Boreal Forest, which stretches from Alaska to Labrador. We still have a chance to protect these nesting grounds on a grand scale and give species the best chance of surviving into the future. After all, the more birds flying south out of the boreal each fall, the more resilient they will be in the face of threats to wintering grounds in the United States and across Latin America.

This latest research, though, confirms that without efforts to speed-up the pace and scale of conservation efforts, billions more birds could be lost in coming decades.

We need to protect the habitat birds use throughout their life cycle, of course, and each nation in the hemisphere bears a responsibility toward ensuring the birds are taken care of when they spend time there.

But Canada has a special responsibility to sustain northern nesting grounds.

Fortunately, Indigenous Nations across the boreal forest region are honoring that responsibility and leading the way in conservation. They show that it is possible to bring balanced solutions to conservation at the pace and scale that will be necessary to maintain and bring back healthy bird populations.

Take the communities of the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site in eastern Manitoba and western Ontario. Together they have protected millions of acres (thousands of km2) of bird habitat in one of the largest remaining blocks of southern boreal forest habitat. Every spring and summer, these lands ring with the songs of birds like the Canada Warbler and the Olive-sided Flycatcher—two species that winter in the northern Andes of South America.

Or the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories that has, together with the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories, protected more than six million acres (24,000 km2) of land teeming with Northern Waterthrushes that winter in the mangroves of the Caribbean basin and Blackpoll Warblers that winter in northern South America.

Other Indigenous communities are still working toward placing parts of their traditional territories into protection like the Moose Cree First Nation of northern Ontario that has declared their million-acre (4,000 km2) North French River watershed protected under their Indigenous law. The Sayisi Dene First Nation has started efforts to protect 12 million acres (50,000 km2) of intact habitat within the Seal River watershed of northern Manitoba.

And along with protecting birds and other wildlife, these areas hold within their forests, peatlands, soils, and permafrost, immense stores of carbon. The conservation work led by these Indigenous governments is providing benefits to both biodiversity and climate change.

These are efforts worth applauding in the face of the dire news of the loss of bird populations and rapidly growing climate change impacts. Indigenous governments and communities give hope to all of us who want to sustain birds and the natural world that they—and we—depend on for our survival.

Jeff Wells is Audubon's vice president of boreal conservation. He leads the organization's effort to protect the more than one billion acres of northern forests, wetlands, lakes, and rivers that comprise North America's boreal forest, from the interior of Alaska across Canada to Newfoundland.