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Prairies

Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teal(photo: Bob Clark)
The Prairie region occupies a roughly semi-circular area that has its base on the Canada-U.S. border and arcs from the western edge of Alberta to the eastern edge of Manitoba. The Canadian Prairies are a mix of cropland and grasslands dotted with millions of small, temporary wetlands and bordered by aspen parklands to the north. It is one of the most intensively used and altered landscapes in Canada—more than 70% of native prairies and wetlands have been lost through conversion to agriculture or other developments.

Bird's-Eye View

  • The Prairies are home to many grassland birds not found elsewhere in Canada and support millions of breeding ducks and other water birds in numerous small ponds and wetlands.
  • Grassland bird populations are declining rapidly. Native grasslands and pasture lands continue to be lost or degraded through agricultural intensification, such as conversion to grains, oilseed or fibre crops which provide poor habitat for most birds. Oil and gas development, fragmentation by roads and fire suppression also reduce habitat. The conservation and restoration of remaining native prairie and more bird-friendly agricultural practices are needed to restore grassland birds.
  • Waterfowl and other water bird populations fluctuate with annual water levels. Habitat protection, through the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, and careful harvest management have helped to maintain waterfowl populations. However, wetlands continue to be drained for agriculture, and climate models predict droughts in the Prairies, which could lead to future declines in birds.

Trends

Grassland birds are in trouble. Since 1970, populations on the Canadian Prairies have declined by almost 40% on average. Historical population declines were likely even larger, as much native grassland habitat was lost prior to the start of bird monitoring in 1970.

Line graph depicting the percent change in population size of various bird guilds in the Prairies 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)

Photograph of a Greater Sage-Grouse in breeding display
The endangered Greater Sage-Grouse, highly
susceptible to disturbance, occurs in habitats
increasingly subject to oil and gas development.
Preservation and restoration of its prairie and
sagebrush habitat will benefit many other
grassland species. (photo: May Haga)
The remaining grassland birds are concentrated in well managed pasturelands and small remnant patches of native prairie. Only the largest patches are able to support viable populations of area-sensitive species, such as Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow and Chestnut-collared Longspur.

Forest-associated birds have benefited as fire suppression and expanding human settlement have increased the area of woody vegetation. However, these same changes exacerbate the declines in many grassland bird populations by further removing and degrading native prairie and grasslands.

Photograph of two Mallard ducklings feeding on duckweed
The wetlands of the Prairie Pothole region-two
thirds of which is in Canada-are the waterfowl
nursery of North America. About half of the
continent's ducks are produced here. (photo:
May Haga)
The Prairies support the highest density of breeding waterfowl in Canada and provide critical stopover sites for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Duck populations in this region fluctuate widely from year to year in response to changes in precipitation. During the droughts of the 1980s and again in 2001-2002, waterfowl populations declined by almost 40%, but then rebounded.

Waterfowl and some other water birds that rely on larger water bodies have increased in population—the Ruddy Duck population has increased by over 50% and the Gadwall population by over 70%. Collaborative partnerships, like the Prairie Habitat Joint Venture, have helped preserve some of the wetland habitat these birds require for breeding and survival.

Species that primarily rely on Prairie potholes—small, temporary wetlands that depend on snowmelt and rain—have generally not fared as well. These habitats are more vulnerable to drought and draining for agriculture. Among these species, the Northern Pintail and Horned Grebe populations have declined by over 70%.

Threats

Photograph of a McCown's Longspur
McCown's Longspurs have declined by 90%, and
the species is now considered at risk, along
with more than half of Canada's grassland bird
species. (photo: Alan MacKeigan)
High-intensity farming practices, such as wetland drainage, conversion of pastureland to cropland and over grazing, remove and degrade grassland and wetland habitat.

Pollutants, including pesticides and heavy metals, reduce the health, reproduction and survival of birds.

Linear development (e.g., roads, power lines, pipelines, seismic lines) fragments the landscape, and introduces noise, predators and invasive plants that are detrimental to bird populations.

Increasing water use by cities, agriculture and industry reduces the amount remaining in wetlands to support waterfowl, shorebirds and other water birds.

Suppressing the natural cycle of fire, particularly near cities and towns, has expanded shrub and forest habitats at the expense of grasslands.

Climate change is an emerging threat. The predicted increase in droughts for the Prairies will have severe consequences for birds and humans.

Solutions

Photograph of a Western Meadowlark
The Western Meadowlark is one of many
species of grassland birds that benefit
from bird-friendly agricultural practises.
(photo: May Haga)
The most important conservation activity in the Canadian Prairies continues to be the preservation of wetlands and native grasslands and the restoration of native prairies.

Farming practices that are compatible with birds are especially important in the heartland of Canadian agriculture. Many grassland birds benefit from appropriate livestock grazing to maintain their preferred habitat. Other bird-friendly practices include no-till farming, planting cover crops, such as pasture and hay that prevent soil erosion and provide nesting cover for some grassland birds, reducing pesticide use and preserving wetlands.

Photograph of short-grass prairies at Suffield National Wildlife Area
Suffield National Wildlife Area protects some
of the most extensive remaining short-grass
prairie in Canada. (photo: Garry C. Trottier)
Beneficial practices in industrial activities, such as noise abatement and timing restrictions, can reduce disturbance to nearby grassland birds.

Healthy grasslands and wetlands can be protected through cooperative tools such as stewardship agreements, community-based urban planning and conservation programs that include landowners.

Canadians’ lifestyle choices can help grassland birds. Including bison, beef and other range fed meat in your diet encourages the retention of pasture land.

Photograph of an American Avocet
American Avocets benefit from the conser-
vation of wetlands carried out under the North
American Waterfowl Management Plan. (photo:
Nick Saunders)