Boreal Forests

Spring Bird Migration and the Indigenous Stewardship That Sustains It

Let's use spring migration to galvanize collective action across the continent.

The first pulses of the flow of bird migration have already started coursing across the hemisphere. Early vanguards of the coming numbers of Red-winged Blackbird, Sandhill Crane, and American Woodcock left their southern U.S. wintering grounds and made it to the northern U.S. and southern Canada over the last few weeks.

Boreal forest-breeding Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers are also pushing northward across the continent. Some, like the Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Pintails, may show up in the southern edge of the boreal forest by early April, others perhaps not until well into May. Still other species may not leave their South American wintering grounds for another month until the flowing current of northward bird migrants becomes a sea in late April and May, flooding the continent with returning birds and filling the air with their exuberant songs.

Billions of these birds are headed to Canada’s boreal forest. Stretching from Alaska to Labrador, it serves as North America’s bird nursery. Every spring, birds arrive to raise their young, and every fall, 3 billion to 5 billion birds fly out of the boreal to backyards, parks, and wildlands across the U.S. and Latin America.

Sustaining boreal nesting grounds ensures these waves of birds will continue washing over the hemisphere for generations to come.

We all anticipate the return of migrant birds each spring. Their arrival is a fundamental reiteration of the great cycles of nature and Earth. The days will get longer. Warmth will come again. Snow storms will be replaced by rain. The grass will turn green. The trees will become clothed in leaves. It makes us thankful every spring.

Birders today celebrate spring migration through festivals, and what is now called the World Migratory Day. Indigenous peoples have their own traditions to celebrate the return of birds. In many First Nations of Canada, the arrival of geese and ducks was the especially welcome return of an important food source after a long winter season. To show gratitude for the return of the waterfowl, many Indigenous people have special feasts, prayers, and dances that take place in the spring.

As these multitudes of birds make their way toward their boreal forest breeding grounds, it must be their expectation that what awaits them are safe and healthy places to raise their young. We humans should find ways to ensure that birds have those intact and healthy forests, wetlands, lakes, and rivers that they need.

Much of this rich bird habitat rests within the traditional territories of Indigenous Peoples, and many Indigenous Nations are working to conserve large stretches of the boreal. Supporting this work helps sustain the bird migration cycle for the entire hemisphere.

That’s why bird lovers look to Canada.

As part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada plans to protect at least 25 percent of lands and waters by 2025. It can reach that target by supporting and advancing Indigenous Conserved and Protected Areas proposals. Another way is through support of Indigenous Guardians programs that manage and provide stewardship for the millions of acres that this northward-moving sea of birds needs for survival in the coming months. All of this together could show to the world a type of conservation leadership that is needed more than ever. We should show strong support for this Indigenous-led conservation in the boreal.

This spring, let the joyous return of birds galvanize us individually and collectively to even more actions to make sure that the birds will continue to return, far into the future.

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