Canada's Birds: An Overview of National Status

Photograph of an adult Bald Eagle Perched in a dead pine tree
Bald Eagle populations have rebounded
following controls on pesticides.
(photo: Charles Francis)
Canada is home to billions of birds belonging to some 451 regularly occurring native species that raise their young or spend their non-breeding seasons in this vast and varied country. Increasingly, these birds face many threats here and elsewhere. Successful conservation of this biological wealth requires that we manage these threats to maintain or restore healthy populations of all species of birds—including extra measures to ensure recovery of the 66 bird species currently assessed as Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern. Careful monitoring of the status of Canada’s birds is essential to guide successful conservation and management actions for these and other species. Early response to warning signs in the environment is more cost-effective than critical intervention.

This report summarizes the status of Canada’s bird populations, both nationally and individually, for each of eight major regions of the country (see the chapter “Measuring the State of Canada’s Birds” for details on methods). The results point to the strong influences of human activity on birds, both positive and negative. This report also identifies threats to birds and offers solutions to keep common birds common and restore threatened species.

Canadian bird populations have changed.

On average, Canadian breeding bird populations have decreased 12% since 1970 when effective monitoring began for most species. For species with sufficient data to monitor their status, 44% have decreased, 33% have increased and 23% have shown little overall change. Some groups, such as grassland birds, aerial insectivores and shorebirds, are showing major declines. Other groups such as waterfowl, raptors and colonial seabirds are increasing, due to careful management, changes in habitat and reductions in environmental contaminants.

Line graph showing the percent change in Canadian native bird species and eight related subgroups since 1970
Indicators of the national population status of all regularly occurring native bird species in Canada and eight selected subgroups (click on graphic for associated data table).
Photograph of a Burrowing Owl in a cattle field
Burrowing Owls benefit from well-managed
grazing to maintain their habitat. (photo:
Geoff Holroyd)
Declining grassland birds present challenges and opportunities for conservation within working landscapes. Many declining grassland species can coexist with bird-friendly agricultural practices. Some species actually benefit from appropriate densities of grazing livestock to create their ideal habitat. Other species do not fare well in disturbed areas. Canada’s few remaining native grasslands must be retained, and new ones created, if species like the Greater Sage-Grouse are to survive. Effective management of grasslands is also needed outside of Canada, in the United States, Mexico and southern South America, where many Canadian birds winter.

Photograph of a Barn Swallow in flight
Barn Swallow and other aerial insectivore
populations have drastically declined. (photo:
Nick Saunders)
Aerial insectivores—birds that catch insects in flight—are declining more steeply than any other group of birds. These declines are likely caused by a combination of factors both in Canada and in their wintering areas in South and Central America, including reductions in insect numbers, habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. Some formerly very common species like the Barn Swallow and Chimney Swift have declined to less than a quarter of their 1970-level populations. Research is urgently needed to understand and reverse the causes of these declines to ensure these species are not lost.

Shorebirds need urgent action. As a group, shorebird species have declined by almost half. Most shorebirds migrate very long distances and are being affected by loss and alteration of wetlands, estuaries, deltas and mudflats at all stages of their journey, from their breeding grounds in Canada to stopover sites and wintering grounds throughout the Western Hemisphere. Ongoing international cooperation is vital to identify and conserve the key sites needed by shorebirds throughout their long migrations.

Photograph of a pair of Ruddy Ducks with four chicks floating on a pond
Ruddy Ducks benefit from careful wetland and harvest
management. (photo: Ducks Unlimited)
Increasing waterfowl populations reflect successful management of hunting and wetlands. International cooperation among governments and conservation organizations, through the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), has led to more sustainable management of waterfowl hunting and protection or restoration of many wetlands—important habitat for waterfowl (i.e., ducks and geese) as well as other wetland birds. These successes demonstrate that habitat management can work to conserve birds. However, wetlands still face many threats including draining for agriculture and development, pollution, invasive non-native species and increasing droughts due to climate change, so conservation efforts must continue.

Increasing raptor populations point to the success of direct intervention. Many raptor populations were hard hit by contamination in the mid-1900s. Banning persistent pesticides such as DDT, combined with species-specific recovery programs for species such as the Peregrine Falcon, have enabled dramatic recoveries since 1970. These population rebounds demonstrate that prompt action can reverse environmental damage. Ongoing vigilance and monitoring is needed to ensure that any potential impacts of new threats, such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, are promptly identified and addressed.

Successful conservation requires committed action and international cooperation.

The biggest threats for many species during their long migrations are loss of habitat at stopover sites and on their wintering grounds. However, pollution, pesticides, hunting, collisions with human-built structures and climate change also have effects. Because most species migrate outside Canada, international cooperation is required to address these threats.

The results in this report point both to past successes in conservation and ongoing challenges for Canada’s birds.. Although there is much to be done, the successes and ongoing research to identify solutions for bird groups in trouble suggest that there are reasons to be hopeful. Solutions can, and must, be implemented at all levels of Canadian society: individuals, organizations, corporations and governments.

Map showing North, Central and South America, with arrows indicating the percentage of birds migrating across borders (e.g. remaining in Canada = 22%; Canada - Europe/Asia/at sea = 7%; Canada - South America = 15%; Canada - Central America = 23%; and Canada - United States = 33%).

Canadians must work internationally to achieve conservation success and be mindful that we share “our” birds with many other countries. Only 22% of Canadian bird species spend the whole year in Canada. Most others migrate to the United States (33%), to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean (23%) or to South America (15%). Some travel to Europe or Asia or spend long periods of time at sea (7%).