As the hot North American summer fades into the cooler days of autumn/fall, tens of millions of migratory birds are traveling south every day across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico into Central and South America and the Caribbean. Over the period from late July through November, from the Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska alone, there are three to five billion birds that must pass over the Canada-U.S. border. Most of them migrate at night while we are sleeping—one of the world’s grandest migratory spectacles that slips by largely unnoticed.
This includes birds like the chicken-size shorebird called the Whimbrel with its long, downcurved bill. Some fly from places in the Arctic like the Mackenzie Delta of the Northwest Territories with stop-offs in the vast saltmarshes of Hudson and James Bay and then onto the Maritimes and New England. Here some feed on lowbush blueberries and other natural berries before striking off across the stormy Atlantic for three to five days of non-stop flight to the coast of South America.
Another, the Blackpoll Warbler—a bird the size of an adult’s closed fist, comes from the spruce forests as far away as Alaska and the Yukon to the Atlantic Coast before also flinging themselves into the night sky to fly to South America. Here, in countries like Colombia, which boasts the greatest bird diversity of any country on Earth, Blackpoll Warblers become temporal housemates of countless non-migratory denizens of lush, tropical Andean rainforests and other forest habitats
Birders across Canada and the U.S. are marveling at these and many other amazing bird species that breed in the Boreal Forest and Arctic regions as they pass through their backyards and neighborhoods. But always in the back of the mind is the realization that there were once so many more—almost three billion more in fact, according to a paper published just a few years ago.
This and many other studies and reports continue to make it clear that we are indeed in the midst of a free fall in biodiversity—including birds—throughout the western hemisphere. Blackpoll Warblers, for example, share their non-breeding habitats with critically endangered species such as the Blue-billed Curassow and the Chestnut-capped Piha, both of which are endemic to Colombia.
In December, leaders of most nations around the world will be coming together at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 meeting/Biodiversity Conference in Montreal to collectively decide on the goals they should all reach in order to reverse biodiversity declines through socially equitable solutions. They will need all the encouragement, pressure, guidance, and help that they can get.
Fortunately, there are many people, organizations, and governments coming forward to raise the level of ambition, commitment, and action to face the challenge. BirdLife International, a coalition of leading bird conservation organizations representing most of the nations of the world, held its 100-year-anniversary congress last week in England. Audubon, one of the four original founding members of BirdLife, was excited to be part of this effort to galvanize the world’s bird organizations to usher in a new era of even greater levels of action to reverse declines and stabilize bird populations. We were especially pleased to announce, with coalition partners BirdLife International, RedLAC, American Bird Conservancy, and others, an amazing new initiative called Conserva Aves which will bring tens of millions of dollars to the effort to protect the most important places for migratory and resident birds across South and Central America and Mexico.
Coinciding with the BirdLife Congress event was another momentous game changer for bird conservation—the release of the phenomenal Bird Migration Explorer, one of the largest compilations of bird migration tracking data ever assembled. This information will be crucial to helping understand how birds are using different places for their survival during breeding, migration, and winter so we can make sure the places they need are not lost and the habitats there remain intact and healthy. This work shows the continued need for increasing the level of land under conservation protection everywhere, a fact highlighted by the push for a new global benchmark to protect 30% of lands and waters in every nation by 2030.
Events last week in New York at the U.N. General Assembly showcased Indigenous voices highlighting the need to recognize and support their rights including deciding the future of their lands and waters. And leaders of many world governments, including from Canada, came together to advocate for drastically increasing the levels of funding from governments, philanthropists, and businesses that are directed at biodiversity conservation and opportunities for synergies with climate change initiatives, especially nature-based climate solutions.
These are all hopeful landmarks on the map pointing the world towards the COP15 U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December. By then, most of the birds migrating through the U.S. and Canada will have found their winter homes ranging from Chile and Argentina to Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, and countries in-between. Birds tell us how important this new global biodiversity treaty is, and they need us to make sure it raises the ambitions and commitments of all nations of the world. They have no voice, but we do.
This article by Sebastian Herzog, Aurelio Ramos, and Jeff Wells was first published by Audubon on 6 October 2022. Lead Image: Whimbrel. Photo: Kate Persons / Audubon Photography Awards.
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