A key part of Stutchbury’s research explores where the birds overwinter and breed in summer. She has discovered that while birds like the wood thrush have huge habitat ranges, individual birds travel between very specific locations within those ranges – valuable information when planning where to focus conservation and protection efforts.
As the birds navigate their way between migration sites, they encounter numerous obstacles. To illustrate, Stutchbury displays on the screen a composite satellite image of North America at night. The eastern half of the continent, from Florida to Ontario and Quebec, is lit up like Times Square. It is this perspective that anchors Stutchbury’s belief that habitat loss from urbanization is a bigger factor in declining populations than collisions with buildings and other structures. “To get back to their breeding grounds from the south, they have to go through all this [urban congestion],” she says. “These little birds … need little forest patches, they need good stopover habitat to fuel the journey. If they land in a place with little food, they have to stay on the ground a lot longer.” Such delays leave birds vulnerable to injury and predation, and threaten their ability to successfully reproduce.
On this front, city residents can make a critical difference by providing habitats where the birds can stop. The Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) offers information and advice for people who want to make their properties bird friendly by planting native sources of food and providing shelter and clean water. Recommended plantings vary by area and preference, but Christina Sharma, a CWF volunteer in Toronto, favours shrubs such as elderberry and grey dogwood. “They both produce berries at the end of the summer,” she says, which nourish birds heading south in the fall.
Under the auspices of Project CHIRP! (Creating Habitat In Residential Areas and Parkland), an organization she founded in 2007, Sharma has spent years trying to raise awareness of threats to songbirds and helping people make their backyards bird friendly. Her own yard, featuring a mix of shrubs and trees, as well as a protected pond, serves as a demonstration site. “The pond is a real magnet for songbirds,” she says. Sharma stresses that bird friendly does not mean overgrown. “Shrubs, trees and other features can be planted in a contemporary way while still meeting the needs of songbirds.”
Sharma’s message is about co-existence, a common thread in all urban bird conservation work. As planner Snow notes, “The more the public learns about what we’re actually sharing the city with, the more interest there will be in protecting it and acting as stewards.” Sharma has already embraced these goals. Her property is alive with songbirds for much of the year, but especially during migration. This spring, she is looking forward to the return of a number of her favourites: warblers, red-eyed vireos and thrushes. “That’s what I watch for,” she says.
Brian Banks is a Toronto-based writer and editor specializing in nature and conservation, climate change, environmental economics and sustainability. He is the former editor of Financial Post Magazine.