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Progress on Population Monitoring

Information gathered from monitoring bird populations is essential for tracking the status of bird populations—identifying which species are doing well and which may need conservation action—and they provide the foundation for this report on the state of Canada’s birds. Monitoring data are also used to set priorities, evaluate management actions and track the recovery of species at risk. They provide information on changes in distribution and abundance due to climate change, disease, invasive species or other factors, and can help to identify potential causes of population change and appropriate conservation actions.

Bar chart showing the percentage of species in each of four bird guilds for which the monitoring quality is high, medium, low or absent

Monitoring data for most waterfowl species are medium to high quality, with the exception of some seaducks, but many shorebirds, waterbirds (including marshbirds, inland colonial waterbirds and seabirds) and boreal-nesting landbirds remain poorly monitored. Many of the gaps are for species that nest in remote areas and for secretive species that are hard to monitor.

Current State of Bird Monitoring

Photograph of a Long-tailed Jaeger in flight
Long-tailed Jaegers, like many other arctic-nesting
birds, are not well surveyed by existing monitoring
programs and little is known of their population
trends. (Photo: Charles M. Francis)
Currently, only about 70% of the 451 species that occur regularly in Canada, including both breeders and non-breeders, have medium or high quality monitoring data. The remaining 30% are not monitored well enough to determine reliably whether they have been increasing, decreasing or stable. Managing these poorly monitored species presents particular risks, as we do not know whether they have conservation concerns or, if they do, what needs to be done about them.

Monitoring programs have been improving over time

Despite the gaps, knowledge on the status of birds in Canada has been gradually increasing. New programs have been developed, and the geographic coverage of many existing programs has expanded to fill gaps as they are recognized. A major contribution to increased coverage has been a large jump in volunteer participation, both in formal programs, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey, and less formal programs such as checklists. Improved designs and greater effort on professional surveys has also contributed to improvements. Nevertheless, many areas remain difficult to monitor, and substantial new efforts and resources will be needed to fill gaps for all species.

Map illustrating extent of long-term Breeding Bird Survey coverage, as well as coverage added since 1990. Long-term coverage is largely restricted to a broad band extending across the southern third of Canada. Coverage added since 1990 provides important additional coverage in the western boreal and across the rest of the country, in Newfoundland, the Northwest Territories and Yukon in particular.
The North American Breeding Bird Survey, a volunteer-based survey which provides the most reliable trend data for most landbirds in Canada, started in 1966. Geographic coverage has improved over time, but coverage in the Boreal and Arctic remains incomplete due to limited road access and few people living in these regions.

Map illustrating the extent of annual aerial waterfowl surveys carried out since the 1950s, the 1990s and 2005. The first surveys covered central and western Canada, from a small northern section in the Northwest Territories, down across through Alberta, most of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and ending in western Ontario. Surveys added in the 1990s covered the eastern half of Ontario, the southern two-thirds of Quebec, the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador. The surveys added in 2005 added a small region in central British Columbia.
Annual aerial waterfowl surveys now cover much of Canada. They began in central and western Canada which supports the largest breeding concentrations of ducks. They expanded to eastern Canada in 1990 to help manage Black Ducks and to British Columbia in 2005. The Arctic and northern Quebec are also surveyed, but not every year.

How we monitor birds

Knowledge about the state of Canada’s birds comes from many different monitoring programs, reflecting the diversity of habitats and behaviours of birds.

Photograph of an Evening Grosbeak at a feeder
Changes in numbers of Evening Grosbeaks are
monitored mainly by volunteers participating in
Christmas Bird Counts and Project FeederWatch.
(Photo: Gord Belyea)
Many monitoring programs rely on the skill and dedication of tens of thousands of volunteers who contribute their time and expertise. Programs are available for volunteers with various skill levels, from expert birders who can identify every species of breeding bird by sight or sound, to beginners who only know their common backyard birds. Some programs take place in the breeding season, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey, breeding bird atlases, nocturnal owl surveys and marsh monitoring surveys. Others monitor birds on migration, such as the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network and shorebird migration surveys, or in winter such as the Christmas Bird Count and Project FeederWatch. Checklist programs, such as eBird and Étude des populations d'oiseaux du Québec, are less formal, year-round programs that encourage birders to record their observations every time they go birding. Many programs combine data collection with education and recreation, thus building public interest in bird conservation.

Photograph of two volunteers counting birds and taking notes
Skilled volunteers participating in breeding
season surveys can identify birds by sight or
by their songs. (Photo: Bird Studies Canada)
Other monitoring programs rely on professional biologists with logistic support and specialized training. Breeding waterfowl surveys involve counting birds from the air using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, usually coordinated with ground crews to estimate the proportion of birds detected from the air. Surveys for colonial seabirds often require boats or aircraft to reach the colonies, and biologists need to deal with many hazards including cliffs and polar bears, while avoiding disturbing the birds.

Photograph of a float plane flying over a wetland landscape
The Canadian Wildlife Service works with
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct
aerial waterfowl surveys in the Arctic and many
other regions of Canada. (Photo: U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service)
New technologies are being explored to enhance monitoring programs. Digital photographs and automated computer analyses can be used to count nesting seabirds on cliffs or snow goose colonies. Sound recorders can help to detect singing birds in the breeding season. Migrating birds can be tracked using radar and recordings of their nocturnal flight calls. Such tools may all help improve future monitoring.

Line graph showing the number of observations submitted by volunteers to Canada's bird monitoring programs between 1970 and 2010
Since 1900, when a handful of birders started the first Christmas Bird Count in Canada, the number of observations contributed by volunteer bird surveyors to Canada’s bird monitoring programs has grown exponentially, leading to improved precision and better geographic coverage of bird monitoring programs in Canada.