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Arctic

Baird’s Sandpiper(photo: Kyle Elliot)
The Arctic region includes the top of Canada by covering the arctic islands, mainland Nunavut and the northern tip of the Northwest Territories. A smaller eastern segment bridges the top of Quebec and Labrador. The Arctic is a land of tundra, permafrost, ponds, lakes and wetlands, rocky deserts, deep fiords and looming cliffs. It includes over 25% of Canada’s land mass and provides nesting grounds for millions of birds including many of the continent’s shorebirds, geese and some landbirds. The Arctic also supports large colonies of several species of seabirds; their trends are described in the Oceans section of this report.

Bird's-Eye View

  • Across all characteristic species, the overall indicator has changed little because it combines both dramatic increases in waterfowl, primarily geese, and steep declines in shorebirds. The annual variability in the indicators reflects both true annual fluctuations in bird populations in this highly variable environment, and also uncertainty that comes from challenges in monitoring Arctic species.
  • Shorebirds that nest in the Arctic are declining sharply. The biggest threats are habitat loss and degradation along migratory routes and in wintering areas, but climate change may be reducing their breeding success.
  • Several goose populations have increased dramatically due largely to abundant winter food sources from agriculture; these populations are now causing serious damage to Arctic wetlands and tundra through over-grazing.
  • Climate change is already affecting Arctic ecosystems and is projected to change at rates that will exceed the ability of some Arctic bird species to adapt.

Trends

The population status of many Arctic birds is poorly known because the remoteness, vast area and challenging weather conditions in the Arctic make monitoring difficult. Information for many species depends on counts made during migration or on their wintering grounds, but these counts can be imprecise and may be affected by shifts in wintering distribution or migration behaviour.

Line graph depicting the percent change in population size of various bird guilds in the Arctic since 1974 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)

Among species for which data are available, the overall indicator appears to have changed little, but this reflects a combination of large increases in some groups and large declines in others.

Most goose and swan populations have increased dramatically, due partly to extra food sources in agricultural areas on their migration routes and wintering areas.

Photograph of a Snowy Owl hunting a lemming
Snowy Owl populations have declined by more than
half, possibly due to changes in lemming populations
associated with climate change. (photo: Ducks
Unlimited Canada)
In contrast, many shorebird species have shown dramatic declines, most likely due to loss or degradation of migration stopover sites and wintering areas. Some seaduck species are also declining, as are several landbirds, though the reasons for these declines are poorly understood.

Threats

Photograph of a large number of Snow Geese in flight
Too much of a good thing? Snow Goose popu-
lations have increased by more than 300% and
are degrading coastal salt marshes through intense
foraging. (photo: May Haga)
Climate is changing faster in the Arctic than most of the world. Rapid climate change could affect nesting success and survival for Arctic birds in several ways, including changes in the availability of plentiful, high-protein insects, changes in habitat, increases in predators and more frequent severe weather events.

Increased natural resource exploration and extraction—such as expansion of energy and mining activities and associated infrastructure—disturb nesting birds, destroy sensitive habitats and increase the risk of spills or other environmental contamination.

Many Arctic-nesting birds migrate long distances and are particularly vulnerable to threats beyond Canada’s borders. Hazards include extreme weather, hunting, pesticides, changes in food availability and habitat loss at migration stopover sites and wintering areas.

Solutions

Photograph of a transport truck on an arctic road
Development in the Arctic must be carefully
managed to avoid ecosystem damage. (photo:
Government of NWT)
Identifying and protecting areas that are most important for bird survival and most resistant to climate change will help to minimize negative impacts of human activity on bird populations.

Maintaining stringent environmental assessments for development projects in the Arctic and appropriate mitigation measures will reduce risks to birds.

Protection of key stopover habitats and food sources along migration routes, both inside and outside of Canada, and regulation of hunting in Caribbean and South and Central American wintering areas, are necessary to help improve survival for Arctic-nesting shorebirds.

Photograph of a Red Knot
Endangered Red Knots migrate through Delaware
Bay where they feed on the eggs of horseshoe
crabs to fuel their spring migration. Overfishing
of the crabs has been a major factor leading
to declines in this species. (photo:May Haga)

Challenges for long-distance migratory shorebirds

Arctic shorebird populations have declined by 60% overall and 10 species are in severe decline. Similar patterns are evident for shorebirds nesting elsewhere in Canada.

Migrating from one end of the world to the other, shorebirds depend on a complex network of wetland and upland habitats, and are vulnerable to habitat loss at any stage of their journey.

Photograph of a Whimbrel walking on the tundra
Arctic breeding Whimbrel are threatened
by hunting in the Caribbean. (photo: May Haga)

Many species of shorebirds concentrate in large numbers at key feeding and resting sites along their migration routes, both in Canada and internationally. Loss or degradation of any one of these sites can lead to dramatic declines in their populations. Shorebirds are also affected by habitat loss and other threats on their wintering areas, such as development that is reducing and degrading coastal habitats in the Caribbean and Central and South America, and agricultural expansion and intensification that is affecting open grassland habitat.

Photograph of a helicopter dropping researchers off in the Arctic taiga
Monitoring shorebirds in the Arctic taiga
provides valuable information on distribution
and trends but is logistically challenging and
expensive, requiring helicopters to access
sampling areas. (photo: Charles Francis)

Monitoring shorebird populations presents particular challenges. Most current monitoring data come from migration stopover sites, but may be biased by changes in stopover behaviour. A major international effort, the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) is now underway to improve understanding of population trends and causes of declines of shorebirds involving surveys in the Arctic, on migration and in southern wintering areas.