Keeping an eye on the sky

Paying attention to birds can help us recognize environmental changes

Whether we think about it or not, birds are an important part of our lives. They are as important to us as they are to the many ecosystems which they play integral roles in sustaining. They bring nature to people, wherever we are. Whether we live in a rural or urban community, hearing birdsong or catching a glimpse of a bird in flight can bring us moments of wonder and connect us to the natural world outside our windows.

“Waking up in the morning and walking out your door and hearing birds singing is always something that lifts people’s spirits. It makes you feel better. Along with giving people a lot of enjoyment, studies have shown that it can improve health and wellbeing tremendously,” says Andrew Couturier, Senior Director of Landscape Science and Conservation at Birds Canada, a partner in BirdLife International.

“They’re very beneficial for our human systems, and also for our natural systems,” he explains. “Birds are essential for pollination, spreading of seeds, rejuvenating forests, pollinating crops, and controlling pests. They’re an indicator species for biodiversity because they’re very visible and tangible. You can see and hear them so they’re easier and less expensive to study than other organisms, and they can act as a broadscale indicator of what’s going on in an ecosystem.”

A barn swallow, a threatened songbird in Ontario. Credit: Leanne Gauthier‑Helmer.

Andrew’s interest in birds goes back to a summer job at Point Pelee National Park as a nature interpreter during his undergrad: “that’s how I got introduced to the whole birding world, I learned all my birds there. It was quite an experience, being thrown into the fire right during spring migration.”

The experience seems to have stuck with him, as he has spent most of his career up to this point working at Birds Canada, a non-profit, charitable organization whose mission is to conserve wild birds through sound science, on-the-ground actions, innovative partnerships, public engagement, and science-based advocacy.

Having joined this organization when there were only 12 employees, he’s seen it grow to over 60, an impressive feat for any conservation organization. His involvement and leadership in bird conservation on wide-ranging projects of provincial, national, and international scope have been significant, and in 2018 he was elected to the College of Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

A major project that Andrew is contributing to is the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. The data collected in this enormous project provides important insight into the status, distribution and abundance of the whole province’s breeding birds, making it a useful tool for conservation.

This is the third iteration of this Atlas, which is undertaken every 20 years. The first round was completed in the early ‘80s and the second in the early 2000’s. With the soon-to-be many rounds of data collection, Andrew explains that this project provides the opportunity to reveal changes in populations and breeding over a 40-year period: “It will be interesting to see if we notice any changes and if we could attribute the changes to climate change.”

While birds extend their ranges at times for a variety of reasons, including temperature fluctuations and loss or gain of habitat, these factors can be exacerbated by climate change and pressures from increased human development.

Climate change caused by increased amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been shown to cause higher temperatures and extreme weather events such as drought, which can impact bird behaviour and nesting success. With a shifting climate, there is also increased opportunities for the spreading of invasive species and diseases moving into areas where they wouldn’t previously exist. These changes may be subtle, but as Andrew notes, some birds can be sensitive to these factors.

Andrew explains that climate change could also be having a negative effect on the timing of migration and some bird’s food sources: “aerial insectivores, which are birds such as swallows and swifts that feed on insects while flying, are declining throughout their range, so we’re trying to understand why that would be. One hypothesis is that there is a possible mistiming of when insects first come out in the spring and when birds are arriving. It could be that the birds are arriving earlier or later when the insects are already out or they’re not at their peak, so they’re not getting the benefit of that food source or rearing their young, and so on.”

Many migratory bird species, such as Tundra Swans (on the ground) and ducks (flying), rely on locations like Long Point for food and rest during their migrations. Credit: Andrew Couturier

With scientists agreeing that the effects of climate change will only increase over time, large numbers of birds could be put at risk for population decline, eradication from certain areas, and even extinction. While the effects of climate change on the populations of many bird and other species can be frightening to think about, projects such as the Breeding Bird Atlas are an important step in understanding what is happening and what can be done to conserve these important species into the future.
Two other projects Andrew is involved in are important conservation tools: Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).

The IBA program is an internationally recognized designation that has been around since the late ‘90s to identify important areas for threatened birds, large groups of birds, or birds restricted to certain areas by range or habitat. Building on the success of this program and other similar ones, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) introduced the concept of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) in 2016.

The KBA program, which Andrew is helping to lead nationally as they identify important sites for nature across Canada and the globe, expands the picture to consider the biodiversity of sites beyond birds alone to deepen our understanding of their ecological value.
While neither designation carries any legal protection, they’re valuable for identifying areas of high biodiversity value and supporting conservation goals. These projects are impressive in their global scope, but they have local importance as well.

“We happen to have two of these places within the Biosphere boundaries,” Andrew explains. “One is the Long Point Peninsula and Marshes, and the other is the inland Norfolk Forest Complex. They are designated IBAs, and it looks like both sites will qualify as KBAs.”

The wetlands and marshes in the Long Point area are some of the significant ecosystems found here that provide important habitat for many species. Credit: Andrew Couturier.

The reasons for Norfolk County receiving not one, but two possible KBA designations are many, and they largely relate to the important habitat and biodiversity found here.

“This area is considered the crown jewel of the Carolinian forest zone in Canada. It’s got the highest proportion of forest cover anywhere in southwestern Ontario, and it’s where you can find the majority of Ontario’s Species at Risk. It’s just a real gem within an area that’s otherwise pretty heavily developed. If you start going east or west, you can see a stark difference,” Andrew says.

While Norfolk County may stand out in its forested areas, the extensive plant and animal life here is threatened by increasing human development for urban and agricultural purposes, and the repercussions of these pressures such as nutrient runoff from agricultural fields. As habitats are fragmented and reduced to smaller areas farther apart, species populations can face declines. This can lead to a decline in ecosystem health, which impacts ecosystem services such as clean air, clean water, and healthy soil used to grow our food.

While programs undertaken by Birds Canada like the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, IBAs and KBAs are important tools for indicating areas of high biodiversity value for conservation efforts, Andrew notes that increased public awareness and action is needed make conservation goals a reality.

Birds Canada provides a lot of helpful resources, such as this article on the top 6 ways to help birds. They also have numerous citizen science opportunities for interested volunteers to share their energy, skill, and bird sightings. Even small decisions, such as the type of coffee you buy, can add up to a real difference, especially if enough people get on board.

Conservation can begin wherever you are by noticing and engaging the world around you, beginning with stopping to listen to a birdsong: “If people don’t experience nature, then they don’t really understand it and they don’t appreciate it, and therefore they don’t take an interest in conserving it,” Andrew says thoughtfully. “It’s great to see the lightbulb come on when somebody has a bird in their backyard or has planted a garden using native plants that are beneficial for birds and other wildlife. It feels like a real victory, so we try to provide opportunities for people to get involved and make connections with nature so that they will take more of an interest in conserving it in the future.”

Change doesn’t come so much from a central place off somewhere, as Andrew says, it comes from members of the community rolling up their sleeves and making things happen.

Keeping cool: restoring natural areas with native plants can lower temperatures

Have you ever gone for a walk in the woods and thought the air felt a little cooler than where you entered the woods from? Chances are that it is. It’s likely cooler than your street, yard, or even the agricultural field nearby. These local temperature differences are real and noticeable.

Jonas Hamberg, a researcher from the University of Waterloo, looks closely at the temperatures of ecosystems. According to Jonas, looking at ecosystems from above and taking their temperature using thermal imaging can give us insight into their health beyond what we may see – or at times not be able to see – on the surface, and can let us know if restoration efforts are on the right track.

Originally from Sweden, Jonas has spent time working and studying in India, Brazil, South Africa, the U.S., and now Canada. Through his interest in restoration, he developed an interest in ecosystem energy balances and how ecosystems use solar energy in different ways.

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His research involves looking at the big picture – literally. He uses drones and satellites, including NASA Landsat satellites and a thermal camera on the International Space Station (ISS) called ECOSTRESS, to gather images and measure the heat coming off the surface of restoration areas and look at how temperatures at these areas change over time.

A primary site for Jonas’ research is right here in Norfolk County. Here, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has been undertaking large restoration projects to restore hundreds of hectares of forest, woodland, and tallgrass prairie. Working alongside NCC, Jonas has made some interesting findings with implications for climate change adaptation.

“I looked at how the temperature has changed in restoration areas over the last 12 years and found that they have decreased in temperature by about 4.5 degrees in summer daytime temperatures in that time. This is because the plants take in the solar energy that comes in and they use it for processes like photosynthesis and transpiration much more effectively than if that area was agriculture or unused.”

Rising temperatures are a concerning effect of climate change. Scientists have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities. Among the impacts of rising temperatures are longer and more intense heat waves, which can be deadly for humans, animals, and plants.

Jonas notes the direct connection his research has to climate change: “I don’t know how big of an effect this has globally on large scale climate change, but it does have a big effect locally. Being able to say, ‘if you restore this area, that will cool it,’ will have an effect not just on creating habitat for animals who wouldn’t be able to deal with the heat as temperatures increase, but also cooling the area for humans and people living nearby which can help improve quality of life and create local adaptations to climate change. It’s more than just holding carbon in trees, restoring forests and such should have an overall net cooling effect.”

His work may be mostly looking from above using thermal images, but to understand the cooling process Jonas also does a lot of on-the-ground monitoring. This involves identifying and measuring the plants as well as using vegetation data recorded by NCC staff over the last 12 years, and then comparing that to the thermal imagery to see the connections.

“At one site, I think we identified 44,000 individual plants,” he said. “We found that the more biodiversity, the more different species of plants, the more the temperature decreased.”

It seems that native plants also play an important role. Jonas’ research points towards a correlation between native species and cooling. Overall, one additional plant species decreased temperatures by about 0.3 degrees, and only so for native species. Like many cautious scientists, Jonas says this with an asterisk beside it, noting that more study is needed to say this definitively.

“It makes sense though,” he explains. “Non-native species tend to spread and take up a lot of space, but native species are better adapted to the site. For example, native species in tallgrass prairie ecosystems have deeper roots than non-native plants to take up water on hot, dry summer days, and they seem to have more mycorrhizal connections to other parts of the ecosystem. These things make them more efficient at transpiration, photosynthesis, and taking up energy, thereby cooling the area more.”
Jonas’ research points towards the importance of restoration with biodiversity and native species in mind to produce healthy ecosystems capable of cooling local temperatures. However, these elements are sometimes overlooked in restoration efforts. While organizations like NCC have good track records in restoration and ecological monitoring, Jonas notes that the unfortunate reality is that not all do: “when companies do restoration, they often do it the cheapest way possible, and that’s often using few species, and often not native species. There’s also often not enough money or interest in post-restoration monitoring. That’s a problem.”

As more research like Jonas’ comes out which shows the mitigation effect restoration efforts and biodiversity can have against climate change, there is hope that more and more companies and people will realize that the cost of doing nothing, or the bare minimum, is greater than the cost of effective restoration and developing healthy ecosystems. Thermal imaging may provide a helpful tool in checking the pulse of restored areas. It can help detect if progress is being made through cooler temperatures, or in the case of a temperature spike, can indicate something is going wrong that requires action which may otherwise be missed.

Some more good news: the majority of the satellite imagery Jonas works with is publicly accessible. While it may take some training to understand and use the data and information these images can provide, they have a lot of potential to help in ecological fields, and Jonas is hopeful more people will utilize it.

While this area of research shows promise, it may not be for everyone. There are many other ways communities and individuals can help with restoration and conservation, beginning with thinking about their own backyard.

“Coming from my research, don’t just think about trees,” Jonas affirms. “Trees are very important of course, and people tend to like trees a lot, but there’s more to vegetation. Think about planting tallgrass, shrubs, bushes, and more. Creating diversity and structure is important, especially for animals. Human development tends to get very flat and perfect, but nature wants little holes and nooks.”

Thoughtful reforestation and restoration practices which focus on native plants and increasing biodiversity can help us keep cool and adapt to rising temperatures connected to climate change at a local level. When looking at your yard, garden, or any outdoor space you have access to, think about planting a variety of local, native species. Keep in mind that small positive changes can add up to have a big impact!

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