The Warblers by Birds Canada

The Wake-up Call: conserving Canada's most threatened bird species

May 26, 2022
The Warblers by Birds Canada
The Wake-up Call: conserving Canada's most threatened bird species
Show Notes Transcript

The Wake-up Call is a special series where we'll be learning about Canada's most threatened, and at-risk bird species. Experts working with each species will help us fall in love with these often elusive birds; we'll learn about the greatest threats, and how we can help. 

This first episode in the series provides background information to help us understand how species are protected in Canada. Later episodes will feature deep dives into species such as Piping Plover, Bicknell's Thrush, Leach's Storm-Petrel, and many more.

We love hearing from you! Let us know what you think of this new series by emailing podcast@birdscanada.org, and please remember to subscribe, rate and review.

Pete Davidson considers himself a long-distant migrant. He originates from the UK but has lived and worked in Asia, Africa and Canada over the years. He is currently the Senior Director of Conservation Strategy at Birds Canada, and is a member of the Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.   

Jody Allair is an avid birder and naturalist who enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the natural world. He is the Director of Community Engagement at Birds Canada and has written numerous articles on birds, birding and connecting with nature. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @JodyAllair.

Andrea Gress studied Renewable Resource Management at the University of Saskatchewan. She pivoted towards birds, after an internship in South Africa. Upon returning, she worked with Piping Plovers in Saskatchewan and now coordinates the Ontario Piping Plover Conservation Program for Birds Canada. Follow her work at @ontarioplovers

Andrés Jiménez is a Costa Rican wildlife biologist with a keen interest in snakes, frogs, birds and how human relationships are interconnected with the living world. He studied Tropical Biology in Costa Rica and has a Masters in Environmental Problem Solving from York University. Follow him at @andresjimo

This project  is supported by funding from Environment and Climate Change Canada. The views expressed herein are solely those of Birds Canada.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

From Birds Canada, this is the Warblers.

Andrea Gress:

This is the "Wake Up Call", a special podcast series from the Warblers by Birds Canada. I'm Andrea Gress,

Andres Jimenez Monge:

and I am Andres Jimenez.

Andrea Gress:

We'll be speaking with experts about why these species are at risk, what conservation actions are being taken, and what we can all do to help. Just a quick note, before we begin, we had some issues with the recording equipment this episode. So you'll hear some modest crackling throughout, but we'll have that issue fixed before the next one. Thanks, everyone.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

Hello, Warblers, I hope you liked our new theme. That theme is called Water Thrushing, and was composed by the talented Jose Mora. Guess why it's called Water Thrushing? I think you might know that this is a call of Louisiana Waterthrush. Thank you, Jody for picking this species. It's one of the most beautiful warbler calls I've ever heard. And this is a new theme for a new series called "The Wake Up Call" where we take a deep dive into certain bird species, their homes, the champions caring for them, and what you can do to help them on your day to day. Today, Andrew and I will be discussing species at risk with our producer Jody Allair.

Andrea Gress:

Yeah, we asked Jody to join because he's got quite a depth of knowledge on this topic through his lifelong career of working with birds across Canada. But we're also doing something a little different today. As always, we invite an expert on the topic. Today's expert is Pete Davidson. But we struggled to find a time where all four of us could sit down to chat. So instead, Pete has recorded some important insights. We're gonna play those back for you and then help break them down. This first episode is really going to set the stage for our juicier species specific episodes down the line. After all, "The Wake Up Call" is going to be about Canada's most threatened and endangered species, who they are, why they're threatened, and what we can learn from those species if we listen to their calls for help.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

This series comes to you with the support of Environment and Climate Change Canada and we've selected an initial set of species that represent some of the biggest and most complex challenges that we need to deal with in order for us to save them. We're going to be talking about Piping Plovers. What else Andrea?

Andrea Gress:

Oh yeah. Whopping Crane, we'll have Burrowing Owl...

Andres Jimenez Monge:

... Leach's Storm Petrel...

Andrea Gress:

...Marbled Murrelet?

Andres Jimenez Monge:

Yeah, we're going to start with those five and Bicknell's Thrush.

Andrea Gress:

Oooh, and more!

Andres Jimenez Monge:

We're going to start with these species that have such a different lifestyle and such different and complex challenges that can illustrate a lot of our relationship to wildlife, but also how we undertake the challenge of conserving the species.

Andrea Gress:

Yeah. And if you're thinking... "Whoa, I don't think I've even heard of some of those birds." That is just fine. We're learning with you. We call in the experts and they help us dig into it.

Jody Allair:

Pete has worked with birds Canada for over 16 years on a whole variety of projects. And last year, he joined the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which is more commonly known as COSEWIC.

Andrea Gress:

Yeah. COSEWIC has 10 subcommittees that represents the birds, terrestrial mammals, freshwater and marine fishes, marine mammals, vascular plants, mosses, lichens, amphibians, molluscs, arthropods... wow-ee, if you name it, that's probably already on their radar. So these subcommittees are built up of at least five experts in one of those relevant fields. And they've got knowledge experience relevant to wildlife conservation. So we've got Pete here to tell us more about how it all works.

Pete Davidson:

COSEWIC oversees an independent body of experts, and that's the species specialist subcommittee's, work through a standard evidence based procedure to determine the status of each species. In a similar way to the process followed by the global IUCN Red List. But actually, in Canada is a little bit more comprehensive, but there's kind of like three basic steps, each of which has a tangible outcome. So that starts with the process of identifying the candidate species that the COSEWIC groups look after. So they decide, based on the available evidence, which species are getting close to or probably exceeding the thresholds to be listed. And then we go through the process of generating a status report and providing a specific assessment determinating the criteria and the categories that the species might meet. And then that's approved by COSEWIC at the highest level and passed on to the Minister to make the recommendation. So that's kind of how the selection process occurs for every single species at risk.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

That was Pete Davidson, giving an intro to how the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, COSEWIC. This is an independent advisory panel to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada that meets twice a year to assess the status of wildlife species at risk of extinction. But how is it actually done? I mean, listing a species at risk. Here is Pete again, explaining it for birds.

Pete Davidson:

So the work is quite varied. And it involves applying our individual knowledge of birds and threats to birds, making decisions based on scientific evidence, or in cases where the evidence is not as extensive as you'd like, making a judgment call based on our experience. Some of the most important data sources that we rely on within the birds, especially subcommittee come from Citizen Science surveys, in particular the breeding bird survey and the Christmas Bird Count, which provide really long term trends for most individual species. And that's one of the main things we look at when making an assessment; Supplemented with information from programs like breeding bird atlases and Marsh Monitoring. The process is both technical and thorough, we often spend a great deal of time deciding which criteria a species meets, and that defines which category of risk. Now the criteria are really specific. And for the COSEWIC process, they mirror the IUCN global process almost exactly in a nutshell, the themes that trigger a species to be at risk are whether or not the population is declining above a certain rate, whether or not it occupies a geographic area less than a certain square kilometrage and the if population is also declining, if the population is relatively small and declining, or if it is very small, less than 1000 individuals, even if it's stable, that still triggers a species at risk criterion.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

A species becomes a candidate, and then we gather all the knowledge and information we have about that species, we compile it, and that is used to assess the risk of extinction or extirpation. We get that knowledge from you, from people, from 1000s of people being out there, gathering the information, seeing the animals and reporting them.

Andrea Gress:

Loving that shout out to all researchers and citizen scientists. Sometimes we don't even notice the population decline unless it's actively being researched and tracked.

Jody Allair:

You know, this process is really quite fascinating. And it requires a lot of information sharing and meetings with all the right people. And part of me really likes that we have, you know, the top minds and the experts really diving deep into what needs to be done for some of our most endangered birds. I really like that. So there's a lot of thought going into which species need the most help. Why don't we find out what happens after a species is recommended.

Pete Davidson:

Once the COSEWIC committees have made their determination that information is then passed to the Minister of Environment who recommends to cabinet whether or not to list a species under "Schedule 1" of the Species at Risk Act, and it is then the responsibility of the Governor in council to actually list the species under "Schedule 1" of the Act. This whole process can actually take several years, which is one shortcoming of having such a thorough, comprehensive process. I mean, I'd estimate the average for the COSEWIC assessment process... at a guess it's kind of maybe one and a half, maybe two years for more complex species.. But it can then take another two years before the species is listed if extended consultations are opened by the government, which often happens for species that occur on lands with lots of different stakeholders, lots of different management jurisdictions.

Andrea Gress:

Oof, up to two years for complex species. That's how long this process can take.

Jody Allair:

Yeah, and it is one of the challenges, right, because it's not just the amount of time it takes to get to a state of recommending a species for listing, there's also can be a delay between being recommended and then being formally listed. So sometimes it actually takes quite a period of time before, especially complex species, in order to get into the Species at Risk Act.

Andrea Gress:

Let's step back a little bit. We keep using the term species at risk, which I know is a common term amongst wildlife conservation type folks in Canada, but I think the average person is more familiar with words like endangered or extinct. So what exactly is a species at risk?

Pete Davidson:

In the phrase species at risk, the at risk bit means it's at risk of extinction in the wild in the medium term future, or at risk of extirpation, which is a word a little bit like extinction, but it means the loss of the species from a geographic area, but not the entire loss of the species. So yeah, there are there are different levels of risk of extinction. And on the global scale, this is kind of usually defined as critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In Canada, we got a similar series of categories applied, but the names are a bit different. So the highest level of risk is endangered, the next level is threatened, and the next is special concern. One point of clarification that sometimes confuses people is that whilst the term is species at risk, in some places, including Canada, it is technically a-taxal. And not necessarily a full species, it could even in fact, be a subspecies - not just a subspecies, but even just as a distinct population within a subspecies.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

So, Jody... What is interesting about this, can you decompose a bit what it means by taxon level, or how this subspecies versus species needs to be understood?

Jody Allair:

I actually really like this way of doing it, because it's looking at the you know, the population of birds, and if there's - across the country, and if there's a species or a subspecies in one part of the country that's not doing as well as its other range in another part of the country, then it's treated differently by COSWEIC and by (Species at Risk Act) SARA. So that's a way of really kind of focusing in on the populations that need the most conservation work. A really good example of this is the Barn Owl. Out in British Columbia, the Barn Owl is a threatened species. They're quite rare, but they're, no they're exceedingly rare, really. But they can be seen more frequently, especially around the Vancouver area than really anywhere else in Canada. But in Ontario, the Barn Owl is endangered and habitat loss, and pesticide use and all sorts of changes to the landscape have made them really critically endangered. And it's a species actually I used to work on in southern Ontario and they're, they're not doing well. They're treated differently by COSWEIC. They look differently on the SARA registry as well, in order to create a clearer picture of how each population is doing.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

Andrea.. is this the same for Piping Plovers, that might experience a different dynamic through the country?

Andrea Gress:

Piping Plovers are considered endangered all across Canada - everywhere that they breed. But the population in the Great Lakes is a different subspecies. And they were actually extirpated from Ontario for 30 years. So they returned to breed in 2007 after a 30 year absence, and they have really specific conservation needs. So I think looking at your regional populations, and really checking in on the population status in each region that can help us to, you know, see what's happening and where we need to focus our efforts.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

Pete will give us another excellent example. One that is very familiar to many of you that might have grown in rural parts of Canada seing the Barn Swallows on the fields. So let's hear from Pete on the Barn Swallows.

Pete Davidson:

It was previously assessed by COSWEIC as been threatened about a decade back because of long term ongoing declines right across the country. But those appear to have stabilized in part because the population in Saskatchewan is doing really well. This species is kind of typical of a whole range of widespread species that get classified as threatened because the speed at which they're declining is above a certain threshold. It's usually 30% in three generations or 10 years, whichever is the shorter.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

So far, we have started learning from Pete about the governance of a species at risk - which means the process in which we humans to be specific Canadian humans decide and determine that one species has declined and needs to be protected with all the complexities and challenges that that could mean. We have learned that as part of this process, there is an independent advisory committee called COSEWIC. Who do they advise? Well, the environmental authority in Canada which is Environment and Climate Change Canada, and it can take this committee up to two years of data gathering and review to recommend a species for inclusion of at risk. Oof, two years! We also learn that there are different levels of at risk in Canada; we refer to them as endangered that is the most critical category, then there is threatened and finally we have the species of special concern. This means species and populations that we're paying attention to because they have shown a decline.

Jody Allair:

But at this point, you might be wondering, where is all this information? Is there a law? Well, yes, there is. And Pete is going to introduce us to that law that governs species at risk in Canada.

Unknown:

The main policy of the national or federal level is the Species at Risk Act. This was passed in 2002, and came into full effect in 2004. And the purpose of the law is to prevent species from going extinct, to provide the recovery of extirpated species, like the Piping Plover. So the Piping Plover was extirpated for 30 years, but it came back. And it's also to provide the recovery of endangered or threatened wildlife, and to manage species of special concern so they do not become threatened. So that's kind of the purpose of the of the federal act. That's the main piece of legislation. In addition, six provinces have specific legislation to protect species at risk. They are Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Several provinces have amended existing wildlife laws to deal explicitly with species at risk. This is kind of an alternative approach to having a specific species at risk piece of legislation. And other provinces and territories are working on developing legislation. One example British Columbia has some provisions in the Wildlife Act in the Forest and Range Practices Act. And it has a process that lists species as red, blue, or yellow; red being the highest category risk, blue, lower risk, and yellow is not at risk. So there's different approaches in different provinces.

Andrea Gress:

Okay, so we've got federal Species at Risk federal endangered species, but then we've also got provincial levels. So what happens, Jody if a species that is recommended for protection doesn't actually get protected by the legislation? Like does that ever happen?

Jody Allair:

It's a really good question. I'm not sure if it's ever happened where recommendation was not accepted. But there can be really long delays happening. And one I will reference is the Cerulean Warbler was on the list for recommendation for a very, very long time. And it took forever to finally get in to be adopted by SARA, the Species at Risk Act. But what are the other interesting things that you get is that because you have federal Species at Risk legislation, and you also can have provincial Species at Risk legislation, sometimes in provinces, you can have two lists of endangered and threatened species. And I think for the most part, those two lists completely line up. But there are examples when they don't. And one of those was actually a bird that I worked on for about seven years, was the Bald Eagle. In especially the Southern Ontario population of Bald Eagle, which provincially was an endangered species until 2011. But federally was not considered an endangered species at all. So there was a situation where regionally in a province, there was still a species that was endangered, but federally was not considered endangered. And even though that sounds like it may cause more problems, what it does allow is for continued protection, and for us to continue to monitor those birds, and for them to have a certain level of protection in Ontario. So there actually wasn't a negative twist to that. And eventually, they ended up being delisted because their populations are doing really well.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

So as it turns out, Pete Davidson has some statistics on how often this happens, and it might be more common than we originally anticipated. And even though this might not be a big issue with birds, there seems to be a group bias. Let's hear it from Pete.

Unknown:

The recent publication in the journal "EcoScience" found that more than one quarter of all COSEWIC recommendations are not followed through by the federal government to the protection stage of listing under the Species at Risk Act. birds, reptiles and plants are more likely to be legally protected than other species, and arthropods and fishes are less likely to be protected. Unlisted fish species being twice as likely to be threatened by resource use than other unlisted species.

Andrea Gress:

And that's what's bringing us into this series, "The Wake Up Call", we want to dig into some of Canada's most threatened and endangered species, the ones that really need work, the ones that, you know, a blanket solution isn't going to work for them. They need specific help, you know, of course, Piping Plover comes to mind, but we're going to get into so many other species as well.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

And the very puzzling ones. We're going to look into some species in which we cannot find a murder weapon, you know, in which there are so many reasons and it's such an elaborate social context around them that it makes it very challenging to protect them.

Jody Allair:

That's actually one of the things I'm really excited about with this series... is to have the opportunity to educate and communicate about some of these lesser known species at risk that people don't, maybe you've never heard of before. But I think it's really important for people to hear these stories, these challenges of some of these birds like Marbled Murrelet, and Piping Plover. Personally, you know, as someone who's worked on species at risk for over two decades, I've seen species decline in my time, and it's very, very frustrating to see some of the challenges that birds like Louisiana Waterthrushs and Acadian Flycatchers, here in Canada are dealing with, amongst others. One of the solutions is, is awareness. And, and that's why I'm really excited about about this series. Talking about our species at risk legislation, you know, I'm happy that we have it, there are places that don't have a group of people that sit around and think seriously about how to protect their most vulnerable species, and I'm really happy Canada has that. But there's still lots of work to do.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

Andrea, and what about our international listeners? What are they gonna get?

Andrea Gress:

Well, I think they're gonna get a lot of insights as well, because so many of the species that we deal with here in Canada are migratory species. Y ou know, their threats just aren't here in Canada, they're in the wintering ground, as well. And I think people will learn a lot about species that maybe they didn't realize were wintering near them.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

And this will be very interesting for international listeners too, in the sense, and Pete is going to assure us about this in the sense that what COSWEIC does, and how we handle Species at Risk also takes account information that comes from other countries. And it's not solely focused in Canada. Let's listen to Pete.

Unknown:

We don't only look at threats in Canada, we look at threats throughout the full lifecycle of whatever the species is. And for a lot of our birds, that's a migration that spans at least the continent, maybe the hemisphere. And what we try to do is get as accurate and up to date information on threats as possible, including outside of Canada. So that often involves corresponding with colleagues in Central America, South America, certainly the US and Mexico, and sometimes even other jurisdictions where we've got birds that might be migrating across the Pacific or down into Europe.

Jody Allair:

So for all our listeners, what is it that you can do now? Well, pay attention over the next few months, we're going to be rolling out several episodes starting very, very soon. We're also still going to have regular episodes coming, but we're gonna prioritize our new "Wakeup Call" series for the next few months. And Andrea finally gets to have her soul episode on Piping Plovers, which is incredible.

Andrea Gress:

I hope everybody else is excited too! Yeah, these deep dives into various species are going to be really incredible. I think we're all going to learn a lot and I'm really excited for our listeners to learn a lot. So stay tuned. You're going to be thinking about the birds around you and the birds that you can't see and it's just gonna be incredible.

Andres Jimenez Monge:

And reach out if you love "The Wakeup Call." If you love what you're listening, reach out on social media. Give us a shout. Send us question. Let us know you love it so we can bring you more. The Warblers is produced by Andres Jimenez, Jody Allair Andrea Gress, Ruth Friendship-Keller and Kate Dolgleish. This episode was edited by Greg McLaughlin and engineered by Katie Zhang, with the music by Jose Mora, and art by Alex Nicole. Until next time, keep birding!