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Eastern Boreal

Boreal Forest (photo: Max Finkelstein)
The Eastern Boreal region extends east from the Manitoba-Ontario border through central Ontario and Quebec to Newfoundland and Labrador. The vast Eastern Boreal region supports billions of birds within its patchwork of bogs, spruce forests and countless lakes, rivers and streams. The human footprint from industries such as forestry, mining and tourism is still largely restricted to the south, but some northern areas have been flooded by large reservoirs for hydroelectricity, and planning has started for development in many areas of northern Ontario, Quebec and Labrador.

Bird's-Eye View

  • The Eastern Boreal region provides a vast expanse of relatively healthy wetland and forest habitats for nesting birds, but knowledge of the status of its birds is limited because most monitoring is restricted to the southern edges.
  • Within the monitored area, characteristic species have declined slightly overall, with shrub and forest-edge birds showing the steepest declines, forest birds showing little change and waterfowl and other water birds showing slight increases.
  • The boreal landscape has been shaped by natural disturbances (e.g., fires, beavers, insect outbreaks) for millennia. Large-scale industrial activities, such as forestry and mining, as well as climate change, are altering disturbance patterns and are likely to change bird communities. For instance, controls of spruce budworm outbreaks have negatively affected warblers that feed on budworm caterpillars.

Trends

Monitoring in the Eastern Boreal is difficult due to the region’s large size and relative isolation. Trend data for most species, other than waterfowl which are monitored from the air, come only from the more accessible southern edges of the region.

Line graph depicting the percent change in population size of various bird guilds in the Eastern Boreal since 1970 Bar chart showing the number of species in each guild with increasing or decreasing population size
Indicators of the average population status of characteristic species (click on graphic for a larger version and associated data tables)

Overall, species that are characteristic of the Eastern Boreal have decreased by 12%. Shrub and forest-edge birds have shown the largest declines; over the last 40 years, all but one species has declined. All species in this group are migratory, and threats to their wintering habitat may be important.

Photograph of a helicopter flying above a boreal wetland
Helicopters or airplanes are the only effective
way to count ducks and other water birds in
many parts of the boreal. (photo: Christine
Lepage)
On average, waterfowl and other water bird populations have increased slightly relative to 1970. Some species have shown substantial increases of more than 100% (Hooded Merganser, Sandhill Crane and Canada Goose), while others have declined strongly, such as the American Bittern and Common Goldeneye.

Almost half of the characteristic species of the Eastern Boreal are forest birds. Overall, forest species show little change. However some resident species have strongly increased, such as the Common Raven, Pileated Woodpecker and Red-breasted Nuthatch, while many migrants have decreased, such as Bay-breasted, Blackpoll and Canada Warblers.

Threats

Photograph of a Boreal Chickadee
Boreal Chickadees are year-round residents of
dense spruce-fir forests in the Boreal. (photo: Nick
Saunders)
The most serious threats to boreal birds are the cumulative impacts of habitat alteration from industrial development—energy, forestry and mining—and associated infrastructure (e.g., roads, airstrips and transmission corridors). Development is expanding northward to previously inaccessible regions and may affect the quality and quantity of habitat available for birds.

Internationally, the loss of shrub and forest habitats in the Caribbean and Central and South America further threatens the migratory species that breed in the Eastern Boreal region. Forests in these wintering areas are being cleared for agriculture and forestry to support increasing human populations and growing international demand for products from these industries. Mangrove habitats—important for wintering shrub and forest edge species—are being lost to coastal development for beach tourism and shrimp aquaculture.

Photograph of a Cape May Warbler standing on a palm leaf
Cape May Warblers breed in the boreal forest
and winter in Cuba and other Caribbean
islands. Like many other boreal songbirds,
their populations depend on conservation of
adequate habitat in their tropical wintering
areas. (photo: Laura Gooch)
Climate change is an emerging issue with potentially significant effects to ecosystem structure and function. Migratory birds are vulnerable to climate-influenced events, such as the increased frequency or intensity of fires and flooding during the breeding season and storms during migration.

Solutions

Forest management that emulates the pattern and schedules of natural disturbance leads to a mix of habitat types and forest stand ages, thus ensuring healthy bird populations, which in turn help control insect pests.

Photograph of a male Black-throated Blue Warbler with young at the nest
The Boreal provides a vast nursery for millions of
warblers, such as these Black-throated Blue
Warblers, that migrate through southern Canada
and the United States to Central and South America.
(photo: George Peck)
Recent landmark agreements that aim to protect 50% of the Eastern Boreal forest in Ontario and Quebec are excellent examples of the recognition of the global importance of the Boreal forest and the ability to strike a balance between conservation and economic growth. Detailed comprehensive land-use planning and management are needed to support this balance as development spreads north.

The conservation of remaining native habitats in the Caribbean and Central and South America would provide local ecological benefits such as clean air and clean water, support sustainable industries such as ecotourism while providing wintering habitat for boreal birds. Forest plantations and shade-grown coffee support many birds and should be encouraged.

The effects of climate change, such as increased flooding and fires, will be difficult to mitigate in the Boreal forest. Addressing the underlying causes of climate change is essential for long-term conservation.

Aerial Photograph of Longridge Point, James Bay
Longridge Point, James Bay (photo: Mark Peck)

The coastlines of James Bay and Hudson Bay provide crucial stopover and staging habitat for many species of migratory waterfowl, other water birds and shorebirds, including Stilt Sandpipers

Photograph of two Stilt Sandpipers
Stilt Sandpipers (photo: May Haga)