Forest decline, shifting baselines and the value of noticing
“By some it is regarded as a mild paralysis of the central nervous system, which can be cured only by rising at dawn and sitting in a bog.” – Joseph Hickey (from the landmark Guide to Bird Watching, 1943)
Author feeding chickadee. Photo: Linda Pannozzo
Sitting in the quaint, steamy tea room, high up in a cackling canopy of a renowned bird sanctuary, there was no question, I was out of my element. I was 19 years old, visiting the island of Tobago with a friend and we decided to take a day trip to the Grafton-Caledonia bird sanctuary more out of boredom with the beach than for any love of birds. Within seconds of receiving our iced teas on the sun-speckled wrap around deck, we were summoned emphatically by a couple of Tilley-clad 50-somethings—bird aficionados, pockets bulging from tropical bird guides and trail mix. There was a very unusual sighting, they whispered. Feigning interest, my gaze followed the pointing fingers up into the lush foliage where I caught sight of what I recall as a dark-coloured bird. I am (a few decades later) reluctant to commit to paper that I was unimpressed. It looked like an ordinary bird to me.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “youth is wasted on the young.” But in this case, so are rare birds!
Hairy woodpecker in a maple tree, Fox Point, Nova Scotia. Photo: Linda Pannozzo
According to John Livingston, in Landsdowne’s Birds of the Forest—a book I will always cherish for J.F. Landsdowne’s stunning illustrations—the metamorphosis of the would-be bird watcher begins with a “casual interest in birds around the garden which soon develops into a positive desire to keep them there by feeding, watering and so on. This is usually followed by at least a germ of curiousity about the names and the ways of backyard birds, and the quite natural urge to attach a label to them.”
For me, it wasn’t in the jungles of Tobago where my metamorphosis began. It was a few years later, on a 300-acre farm in northwestern Quebec in the dead of winter. Dead except for the cheery calls of the emphatic chickadees, the mealtime brawl of the dapper evening grosbeaks, the undulating flight of the restless snow buntings over the snow-covered barley fields.
The birds offered me a life line through the darkest, coldest months. That birds can enthral us shouldn’t really come as any surprise—it’s been this way throughout history. Birds have always been imbued with magical or spiritual power, able to communicate with the gods, symbols of freedom, liberated from earthly constraints. Birds as otherworldly. Birds as messengers.
Mourning dove from Landsdowne’s Birds of the Forest. Photo: Linda Pannozzo
Ornithology, which is the study of birds, has benefited immensely from the dedication and contributions of amateur birders. Unlike most scientific fields, it has opened its gates to citizen scientists. For instance, the Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and Birds Canada, is an annual event (coming up February 18-21) where birders all over the world can send in data about the birds they see or hear. Apps have been developed to help with identification, but some birders have just learned to connect the songs with the singers. Some of the more memorable bird call mnemonics are the goldfinch’s “potato chip, potato chip,” the northern cardinal’s “what cheer, cheer, cheer” and the warbling vireo’s “if I see you; I will seize you; and I’ll squeeze you; ‘til you SQUIRT.”
The observation lists of citizen scientists from around the world get aggregated and contribute to understanding whether species are flourishing, making a rebound, or are in decline. For instance, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s 2019 publication The State of Canada’s Birds, 66% of the species trends reported came from the programs that rely on the data collected by citizen scientists. According to the report, using 1970 as the base year, populations of shorebirds, grassland birds, and aerial insectivores have rapidly declined, while waterfowl and birds of prey have mounted somewhat of a recovery. [i]
The State of Canada’s Birds, 2019. Environment and Climate Change Canada.
But we need to take the good news with a grain of salt.
In 1995, University of British Columbia fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome” to describe the phenomenon where each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.” When Pauly was writing about this he was referring to fish stocks that were in decline and that with each generation there was “a gradual accommodation” of the creeping loss.
The same could be said about terrestrial life and in this case, about birds. We know that forest-dependent species, that require forests for food, shelter, breeding, or any other critical aspect of their life cycles, are adversely affected by intensive forest harvesting practices such as clearcutting and whole tree harvesting. These practices, which dominate in this province, deteriorate land systems and destroy habitat. Of course, forestry practices aren’t the only cause of forest-dependent species loss. We’re also tearing down forests to build our subdivisions and parking lots, and then there are the effects that acid rain and climate change have on forests too.
All told, there has been a significant decline in species biodiversity on a global level, with species becoming extinct at a rate more than 100 times faster than the previous norm. Scientists argue that this places all earth systems at “high risk” because the loss of a species could have unknown but far-reaching implications for ecosystems. If fact, we’ve known for more than two decades that ecosystems with losses in plant and animal biological diversity also show less resilience—that ability to bounce back after a shock or stress of some kind—and are less able to provide ecosystem services.
So not to be accused of what Pauly describes above, it is essential to consider bird species loss from a historical perspective. For instance, if you’ve never seen pictures or heard stories about what an intact Acadian forest was like two hundred years ago, along with the abundance and diversity of bird species, you might think that what you’re seeing and hearing in the woods today is pretty normal.*
The thing is, if significant biological change goes unnoticed—by creating short trend lines instead of historical ones—then we might not see the need for governments to set hard targets for restoration, conservation, or preservation.
Canada geese, Tantramar marsh, Sackville, NB. It would be hard to overstate the value of a wetland when it comes to ecosystem services. A short list would be that wetlands are required for the life cycle of innumerable species, they provide flood control, act as a natural filtration system, store carbon, are biodiverse, and provide vital habitat for migratory birds, fish, and mammals. Photo: Linda Pannozzo
Over the last number of years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people with knowledge about forests and the business of forestry, and one person who has made a big impression on me is Donna Crossland. Now retired from her long-standing position with Parks Canada as a biologist, Crossland is also a forest ecologist and is passionate about ensuring habitat requirements are considered in forest management decisions.
One day a couple years back, Crossland was with me as we stood next to a large clearcut inside the Tobeatic Wildlife Management area, an area that was at one time heavily frequented by mainland moose. Today they are considered endangered in Nova Scotia, and despite the fact that the government has committed to conducting a baseline survey, an estimate already exists that only 100 remain. The lakes and rivers within the “refuge” are also threatened, invaded by chain pickerel—a voracious fish-eating fish that threatens the area’s native aquatic fauna. And the landscape itself—even though it falls within what some still refer to as a “sanctuary”— is mangled and scarred by industrial logging and fragmented by roads.
On this particular day, the air was heavy with the moisture from a torrential downfall, and we had been standing there just long enough for the black flies to find us when we heard the rising, buzzy trill from just beyond the edge of the clearcut, in the still intact forest canopy. I had no idea from what bird the lovely song originated, but Crossland knew, almost immediately. It was a Northern Parula, a delicate, bluish grey migrant from Central and South America that comes north in the spring to breed. These birds are particularly fond of forests draped in “old-man’s beard,” because they use the pendulous strands of these lichens to build their nests in, she tells me. For food they pluck at insects as they dart from branch to branch in the dense foliage high up in the tree tops. The thing is, parula’s, much like blue-headed vireos and black-throated green warblers—all birds we heard singing this day—cannot find food in clearcuts.
Northern Parula, Wikimedia Commons.
Standing in the clearcut, Crossland explained how these kinds of birds “cannot switch their diets to insects found in open fields, bird feeders, or elsewhere. They simply don't know how to change their food search, and are specialized for the niche they occupy. They are innately programmed to forage for insects in a forest habitat.”
Crossland worries that when forests are clearcut, like this one inside the Tobeatic Wildlife Management Area, the food sources that are appropriate for many of these bird species are removed for the next five decades and likely much longer. “On those poor soils, the returning forests may not provide adequate food sources for these species for another century,” she says. She also notes that because they require hanging lichens for nest-building “the trees must grow back first and then slow-growing lichens must establish on them,” before they can be nested in again.
“For those songbirds, it would be no different than paving over the entire cut for the next 50 to 100 years.”
As we turned to walk back to the truck, I noticed that Crossland had tears in her eyes.
Clearcut within the Tobeatic Wildlife Management Area. Photo: Linda Pannozzo
Forest harvesting practices take a “great toll on our wildlife,” says Crossland. Last May, she posted photos on her Facebook page of tiny owlets that were found in a nest of a cavity tree that had been cut down not far from where she lives.
“They are tiny and weak and unlikely to live,” she wrote.
“The woodsman who cut down this tree was very conscientious and has always tried to leave the cavity trees. He felt badly about it, and it was good of him to shut down his operation and try to save the owlets. The trouble is that cutting this time of year begins to impact nests, and we don’t always know what harms we commit. It’s far worse with regards to industrial forestry operations and the folks who are flattening trees on a large scale, pulling levers from inside a cab…if felling trees during the breeding bird season, one should know that it will destroy countless nests and newly hatched and vulnerable nestlings. How many woodcock nests are being driven over right now? No one knows. Wood ducks and wooded mergansers are presently nestled within hollow trees incubating eggs, and there is no way to know they are there until the tree is sawed off at the stump and sometimes even then the damage is not discovered from inside the cab of the machine.”
Barred owl chicks rescued from the inside of a felled cavity tree. Photo courtesy Donna Crossland
The little barred owl chicks were lucky. Crossland gave them “tweezer snacks of raw minced salmon and egg yoke” before they were taken to Hope for Wildlife. Crossland was given a “file number” so she could check back on their progress. The two that hatched did make it and Crossland was also able to advise about where the young owls could be released back into the wild. It was close to where they had hatched.
“It was a full circle moment and wonderful closure for me,” says Crossland.
“The ultimate solution is that wildlife need forests, particularly large, old stands of trees that are now rare in Nova Scotia,” she says.
We also need to start paying a lot more attention.
One of the barred owl chicks, all grown up, on the day it was released back into woodlands close to where it was hatched. Photo courtesy Donna Crossland
* Update: A few days after this article was posted I received a response to a question I had sent in to Environment and Climate Change Canada about why the bird survey data did not include historical abundance. I received the following response: “Some of the most important bird surveys, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the North American Breeding Waterfowl surveys, only started in the mid-to-late-1960s. As such, 1970 serves as the earliest date available for analysis supported by reliable quantitative data on most bird populations.”
[i] According to the data sources and methods for the report, to be comparable among species and data sources, each species population trend was modelled as a proportional change from the base year of 1970 to create a species index. These were then combined into a single composite index for each species group. The overall, long-term trends for each species group were determined based on the change in the final year relative to 1970. If you’re interested in finding out more about the methods, go here.