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A Volunteer Opportunity For The Birds

Each spring birdsong fills the air as warblers, chickadees and many other bird species arrive back in Manitoba to pair up and raise their young. But are most birds that ordinarily make Manitoba their breeding grounds still around? Are other species now breeding here?

Starting this spring until 2015 ordinary Manitobans will help scientists tracking bird populations find answers. They’ll be volunteering a few hours a year to help create the first-ever Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas.

Launched last month as a special initiative of Manitoba Conservation, the project is enlisting more ears and eyes to record the status, distribution and abundance of bird species in Manitoba.

Few bird surveys have been done here so thus not much data specific to Manitoba exists, says Christian Artuso with Bird Studies Canada.

Bird atlases help scientists, by providing more comprehensive data from a local perspective, on what may be happening to species in local contexts, he said.

With national trends showing many bird species in decline an atlas zeros in on where the trouble is, or, conversely, where bird populations may still be thriving.

“It’s possible that we might be either bucking the trend, and birds might be doing better here. Or they might be doing worse. This will help us find out,” said Artuso, who will co-ordinate the Manitoba atlas project.

Volunteers are asked to sign up with an atlas supervisor, then keep an eye and ear out for breeding birds in one 10-square-kilometre area on a provincial grid. A package of resources to help identify birds and bird behaviours is made available to all volunteers.

You needn’t be an avid birdwatcher already to do this, said Artuso. This can be as simple as keeping an eye on that robin or wren that makes its home in your backyard year after year.

The time commitment by volunteers is also minimal. Just 20 hours are asked for over five years. But the data this will provide is invaluable, Artuso said.

“Birds tell us about the health of the environment and what’s going on in the greater scheme of things,” he said, adding that this gathered information will better inform decision-making on conservation priorities.

Breeding bird atlases are typically repeated every 20 years and have been produced in many European countries and throughout North America, including most provinces in Canada. To date, only Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have not created atlases.

This will be one of the largest citizen-scientist volunteer efforts ever conducted in this province, said Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie at the launch of the project in April.

There’s never been a more critical time to get a handle on what’s happening to bird populations. Of the 516 plant and animal species currently at risk in Canada, 65 species or subspecies are birds. There are now approximately 20 endangered bird species in Canada’s species-at-risk list, plus an additional 35 which are threatened or of special concern. Ten more species were added to that list since 2006.

Certain bird species we consider to be still common are also in trouble, Artuso noted.

“Barn swallows have gone down significantly and some stats show even things like common grackles have gone down,” he said. “The Western meadowlark is also showing some pretty strong declines.”

The atlas project will better inform decision makers in setting conservation priorities, he added.

The project is a partnership between federal and provincial governments, non-government organizations, private corporations, individual citizens and communities with a steering committee including Environment Canada, Manitoba Conservation, Bird Studies Canada, Nature Manitoba, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Manitoba Museum. Manitoba Hydro will provide financial support for the project. [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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