Northern parula. From familiar backyard visitors such as the American robin and blue jay to iconic species such as the snowy owl and common loon, the changing climate is affecting the migration habits and breeding areas of birds in myriad ways. YOUSIF ATTIA/HANDOUT

The Canada jay, also known by the Cree name wîskicahk and previously called the gray jayearned its place as the country’s unofficial national bird through both its ubiquity and its pluck.

In addition to a range that extends from the Yukon to Newfoundland, this doe-eyed member of the crow family is particularly beloved for its unique adeptness at weathering long, cold Canadian winters. Unlike other species that migrate south each year, Canada jays are dedicated stay-cationers who carefully store caches of perishable food across a large territory and use the cold winter air as a natural refrigerator. These food reserves, and the Canada jay’s renowned skill as a hunter and scavenger, have allowed the bird to thrive in an extremely challenging environment where most other species could not.

Milder winters, however, mean that the Canada jay’s unique survival system no longer works as well as it once did. Warmer temperatures and a more frequent freeze-thaw cycle result in a lower nutritional value for the jay’s stored food and a lower survival rate for newly hatched chicks. According to a study by Parks Canada, the National Audubon Society, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Birds Canada, the Canada jay could lose as much as 71 per cent of its current breeding range in Canada over the next 30 years, a significant loss for both Canadian biodiversity and the country’s birders.

The Canada jay, however, is far from the only bird affected by climate change. From familiar backyard visitors such as the American robin and blue jay to iconic species such as the snowy owl and common loon, the changing climate is affecting the migration habits and breeding areas of birds in myriad ways.

Western tanager. JODY ALLAIR/HANDOUT

Warming winters have allowed some species such as the turkey vulture, northern mockingbird and red-bellied woodpecker to return to Canada earlier each year and expand into new territories, explains Dr. Andrew Farnsworth, a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “With the timing of the blooming of flowers, the leaf-out of trees and the warming of temperatures generally advancing, some species of birds are particularly good at tracking these changes, especially birds that are generally shorter-distance migrants,” he says. “These species track warming springs quite well and often arrive earlier as spring inches earlier each year.” While this trend might be seen as a boon for birders, the bigger picture is more concerning.

Yousif Attia leads a birding tour. KRIS CU/HANDOUT

“We’re seeing declines in species, both in terms of birds that breed here in Canada and migrants passing through,” says Yousif Attia, a birding guide with B.C.-based Eagle Eye Tours. Changing weather patterns, he explains, make it harder to predict which species will be passing through a given area at a given time – a challenge for birders and birding guides alike. “We time our trips to maximize bird diversity and abundance, so the second week of May used to be the traditional window that you would capture the warbler migration in Southwestern Ontario, for example,” he says. “That has now changed to the first week of May or even the last week of April.”

While shorter-distance migrants may be adapting relatively well, it’s a different story for those travelling farther from Central and South America, who rely on a precisely timed arrival to take advantage of insect hatches and flower blooms, explains Jody Allair, the director of community engagement for Birds Canada. “The long-distance migrants that all the birders get excited about in spring, like Canada warblers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks, do not know that there has been an early spring, and they do not appear to be adapting very well to climate change,” he says.

Jody Allair, the director of community engagement for Birds Canada, records birdsong in Marcelin, Sask. BIRDS CANADA/HANDOUT

According to a 2019 study led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, climate change, pollution, habitat loss and other factors have contributed to a 30-per-cent decline in North American bird populations since 1970, with more than 90 per cent of those losses coming from a handful of families including the warblers, sparrows and finches eagerly awaited by Canadian birders each spring. “It’s really tricky because we’ve got all of these things playing together and messing things up for a lot of our birds, especially long-distance migrants,” Allair says.

The steep decline in bird populations revealed by the Cornell study and others brings the reality of a changing climate home for birders, particularly those who weren’t around to experience the relative abundance of decades gone by. “I have been acutely aware for most of my life that my personal experience of nature is very far removed from that of others who came before me,” says Rebecca Reader-Lee, a 22-year-old birder and biology major at the University of Victoria. “Even a conversation with childhood mentors or a glance at historical field notes shows a completely different world, to the point where sometimes it feels just as disconnected from today as hearing about when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.”

Baltimore oriole. JODY ALLAIR/HANDOUT

For every disheartening statistic about the decline of bird populations, however, there are actions birders and non-birders alike can take to mitigate the effects of climate change and benefit Canadian biodiversity in all its forms. Along with the perennial plea to keep cats indoors (domestic cats are believed to kill upward of two billion birds each year in North America alone) Birds Canada provides resources for how to plant and maintain a bird-friendly habitat in your backyard and put up window treatments to prevent bird strikes at home.

“You do not have to be an expert or dedicate all your time and effort to have a positive impact,” adds Reader-Lee. “Personal action within your means, political literacy and action, and elevating the voices of others who have expertise are very important factors in our ability to combat a large and complex issue like climate change.”

The Globe and Mail, April 11, 2024