It’s Summer In the Boreal Forest

A whole new year's worth of birds is about to start its southbound migration. We need to make sure they have food and shelter along the way.

In this age of pandemics and protests, it has felt like time has ground to a halt even while frustrations and anxiety continue to rise. Without a calendar reminder that tells us about the next online Zoom meeting we don’t even know what day it is anymore. But despite this seeming slow-motion advance of time from our human perspective, the Earth’s animals and plants have not changed their natural cycles.

The return of birds each summer to their breeding grounds is one of the most visible and most universally celebrated of those cycles here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Right now, billions of birds have just finished raising their young in North America’s Boreal Forest. They returned here from wintering grounds, some as far away southern South America. It is a massive sea of birds that spills across the continent to reach their Boreal Forest breeding grounds across Canada and Alaska. On arrival, that sea of birds numbers an astounding one to three billion of more than 300 species.

Their cycle of regeneration inspires hope: the young birds produced this summer swell the total that are already beginning their southward journey to three to five billion birds. Soon our backyards and parks will be filled with this new generation of southbound migrant birds from the Boreal Forest. 

This includes ducks, geese, sandpipers, woodpeckers, flycatchers, sparrows, and warblers. The Swainson’s Thrush that spent the summer on its Yukon territory breeding grounds, its fluty songs echoing through the Boreal Forest landscape, made an epic journey to get there. Starting off in northern South America, perhaps in Colombia, a country where hope has replaced the memories of civil war, Swainson’s Thrushes flew for weeks to get to Canada. Along the way they did not care if a birder spotting them in those places was black, or brown or white. Soon they will be retracing that route back.

The fact that millions of people across our continent are able to see and hear and gain hope from the return of birds like these even in the midst of our human tragedy, is a blessing.

But it is not a gift that we should take for granted.

The abundance of Boreal Forest nesting birds that flow across and through our backyards, parks, forests, coasts and wetlands during every spring and fall migration, is because of efforts to ensure that the natural landscapes birds need are healthy and intact. The Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska is particularly special in this regard because it is one of the last, very large such landscapes that is still free of major industrial impacts and remains the ancestral home to the Indigenous Peoples, who were inhabiting it when the first Europeans set foot on these shores.

Ensuring that Boreal Forest landscapes continue to support these billions of birds is crucial to maintaining a healthy world for them and for us humans too. Fortunately, there are people with vision—Indigenous leaders in particular—who are implementing conservation and stewardship actions that will safeguard these boreal bird nurseries. In recent years, vast new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas have been established that provide nesting grounds for literally tens of millions of breeding migratory birds. These range from Tursujuq along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay to Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site spanning the Manitoba-Ontario border to Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area and Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area in the Northwest Territories.

And many more new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas have been proposed across Canada as Indigenous governments and federal, provincial, and territorial governments work to find solutions to the loss of biodiversity and degradation of the environment that has had such devastating impacts to our world. The White-throated Sparrows that passed through Chicago and New York and St. Louis and Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., earlier this spring sang their sweet whistled songs all summer in places like the proposed Seal River Watershed Indigenous Protected Area within the traditional territory of the Sayisi Dene First Nation in northern Manitoba or the North French River watershed within the traditional territory of the Moose Cree First Nation of northern Ontario.

Now more than ever, we need to support the work of Indigenous Nations in conserving these vital lands. That should include government investment in Indigenous-led conservation planning and Indigenous Guardians programs that enlist people in Indigenous communities as monitors and stewards of these lands. These investments will ensure Canada can meet its commitment to sustain biodiversity by protecting 25 percent of lands by 2025, advancing toward the goal of 30 percent by 2030.

The birds are reminding us that the natural cycles of the world have not stopped even if our human time seems to have slowed down and our human prejudices have left many in our societies, wounded and suffering. For the sake of our world, we need to support the work that keeps the nature that sustains us all.