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The Birds of Boreal

Canada's Boreal Forest is not as well known as the tropical rainforests, but the a watery arctic breeding ground is the source of billions of birds that fly south and end up at American birdfeeders. For National Geographic Radio Expeditions, NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports that large areas of the Boreal are being carved up for logging and oil wells.

The Boreal -- named after Boreas, the god of the north wind -- rings the top of the globe through Russia, Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia. One of the largest intact forests remaining on the planet begins where the temperate woods of oak and maple give way to fir, larch, birch and aspen, and then surrender to the treeless tundra. This fall, some 5 billion birds -- warblers, sparrows, flycatchers and vireos -- are migrating south from the Boreal.

Bird expert Richard Thomas takes Arnold birding in Alberta's Boreal Forest near Lesser Slave Lake, a soggy sanctuary of trembling aspen, wild strawberries and mosquitoes. "You have to spend time with the Boreal. You don't have the giant cathedral-like groves you do in the West Coast or in the rainforest. But when you look at everything that's connected -- the birds, the other animals, the very structures of the forest, the trees -- it's just a marvelous place. I don't know, it's just got a hold of me," Thomas says with a laugh.

Birds like the winter wren come to the Boreal for the insects, and for the old growth -- centuries of decomposing deadfall, a carpet on the forest floor.

Alberta's Boreal is being carved up. More than 20 percent of it has already been cut, and less than 10 percent of it is now in patches larger than a few square miles. Roads and pipelines, log yards and clear-cuts have fragmented the forest. Anecdotal and scientific evidence points to a drop in species and numbers of birds.

Thomas says the Boreal is underappreciated, even by those who profess to love the birds that depend on it. "I'm amazed at the ecological illiteracy among birders," he says. "They don't seem to understand the equation. No habitat equals no birding and no birders."

At a field camp nearby at Calling Lake, researchers from the University of Alberta, with some help from the logging industry, have been studying the Boreal for 11 years. They've been looking at different-sized patches or study plots of forest and effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on Boreal songbirds.

Fiona Schmiegelow is a conservation biologist who has led the study. The researchers have found that a year after harvest and fragmentation, birds return to what's left and there's a crowding effect. The following year their numbers drop -- not only in areas that have been cut, but also in adjacent forest left standing. The decline in some migratory bird populations is as high as 50 percent. Smiegelow believes no matter how you chop the Boreal up, there's a clear need to keep some large areas intact.

"I think if we can just keep our minds on the big picture, you know, maybe people think, 'We've got so much, why should we be concerned about it?' But that's why it's so great, because we still do have so much and that we could keep a lot if we care enough about it now to make those decisions so... my hope is that we will," Schmiegelow says.

The tiny white-throated sparrow is the bird most closely associated with Canada's Boreal. Cathy Wilkinson is the director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, which is working with an American group, the Boreal Songbird Initiative, to raise awareness. The white-throated sparrow is in decline in the Boreal, and Wilkinson says that's not just Canada's problem. She says Americans should be concerned about the Boreal because it is the breeding ground for many birds that are beloved in the United States.

"Many of these birds have American names. So if you want to see the continuation of the Connecticut warbler, Tennessee warblers, Philadelphia vireos, you've got to care about Canada's Boreal forest," Wilkinson says.

And, she says, the United States is the single largest consumer of products from Canada's Boreal. "From that perspective there's both an opportunity and responsibility for Americans to lend their voices to Canadians interested in conserving this ecosystem."

As Arnold reports, "Whether a white-throated sparrow that weighs less than a ball-point pen, can change the consumption patterns of millions of Americans and the management practices of Canada's most critical industries is a long shot, but then again, so is its flight every year from the Boreal to our backyards."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Arnold
Elizabeth Arnold is a freelance reporter for NPR. From 2000 - 2004, she was an NPR national correspondent, covering America's public lands with a focus on the environment, politics, economics, and culture.