How Indigenous Peoples Are Protecting North America’s Bird Nursery



By Jeff Wells

May 9, 2019

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Each of these cool, crisp mornings in early May, I step eagerly outside with ears acutely aware of the natural sounds of my neighborhood. Will today bring the first impossibly high song of a bright orange-throated Blackburnian Warbler just back from the Ecuadorian highlands? Will the upward spiraling flutey notes of a Swainson’s Thrush echo in the backyard? Will I be fooled by the repetitive squeaky brake sound of a black-capped Blackpoll Warbler having flown thousands of miles from the Amazon where it spent the winter?

These and a billion more birds are streaming back north on their way to the Boreal Forest biome that stretches across northern North America from the wave-tossed shores of Newfoundland in the east to the rugged landscape of the Northwest Territories, Yukon and interior Alaska in the west.

Tens of millions of other birders and I await their return.

The joy of the spring arrival of that great wave of migrating birds inspired the celebration of International Migratory Bird Day every second weekend of May since 1993.

On this International Migratory Bird Day, my own thoughts are drawn to the places many of the birds passing though my backyard are headed: the Boreal Forest. Known as North America’s Bird Nursery, the boreal attracts up to 3 billion migratory birds each spring. They nest and raise their young, then as many as 5 billion birds leave the forest in the fall, flying south to backyards, parks and wildlands across the hemisphere.

Most boreal bird nesting grounds are sustained by Indigenous Peoples.

I remember craning my neck as I searched the top of tall spruces to catch a glimpse of the flame orange of the Blackburnian Warblers I could hear singing from behind the tourist lodge on a late May visit to the Bloodvein First Nation in the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site.

I think of the Blackpoll Warblers that were migrating through the scrubby willows along the shores of still-frozen Great Slave Lake in chilly Yellowknife when I was there in early June. Those birds and the many other migrants I saw that day were headed to places like the Deline Tsá Túé Biosphere Reserve that the Deline First Nation has established around Great Bear Lake. Or they may have passed though Thaidene Nene--26,376 square kilometres of boreal forest east of Yellowknife. The Lutsel k’e Dene First Nation has led the effort to protect Thaidene Nene as national and territorial parks, both of which could be finalized this summer.

Or how about those early mornings when I canoed a river in northern Ontario and marveled at the splendor of Swainson’s Thrush songs erupting from the fragrant forests surrounding our damp, misty  campsite as we prepared our morning meals. I think of other places too in northern Ontario like the French River Watershed full of nesting Swainson’s Thrushes and millions of other birds. The Moose Cree First Nation has declared the watershed protected.

Indigenous governments and communities are at the forefront of protecting some of the largest landscapes in history across Canada’s Boreal Forest. With support of the Government of Canada, including through its $175 million commitment to accelerate progress toward reaching its international commitment to protect at least 17% of land by 2020, Indigenous governments are in the process of achieving some of the biggest gains for bird conservation in world history.

As we celebrate International Migratory Bird Day and the return of the long-awaited sights and songs of our returning birds, we should all send our thoughts and our support northward to the many special places in the Boreal Forest that Indigenous governments and communities are working to protect.

Photo Credit: Jeff Nadler