A Bird’s Eye View of Lanark County

by Theresa Peluso

This is the second-last article in my series describing how the flora and fauna in Lanark County have changed over the last 30 years. As the title suggests, I’ve taken a bird’s point of view.  Most of the information pertaining to Lanark County was taken from A Place in Time: The Natural Resources of Lanark County, directed and produced by the Community Stewardship Council of Lanark County, and published in December, 2008.

I have been chosen to talk to you humans about the struggle to survive that many of us birds in Lanark County and elsewhere, have been experiencing.  What struggle, you ask?  People estimate that the total bird population in the world is between 200 billion and 400 billion, and that there are around 10,000 different species.  What’s a few species, more or less? Well, if you knew how closely your human fate is tied to ours, you wouldn’t be so quick to turn your back on us.  Here are the facts.

We birds have evolved in the last 200 million years or so to adapt to living in the highest and lowest, coldest and hottest, and wettest and driest regions, and for the most part, ruled the lands and the seas until you humans started proliferating.  Since then, our populations have declined 20-25%, and at least 129 species have actually been classified as extinct since 1500.  (The actual total is closer to 150 species.) Even though you humans seem to be aware of your effect on our survival, the decline is worsening.  Most birds live in forests, which support nearly two-thirds of all species. Shrubland is the next most important habitat, and is where a quarter of bird species live.  Others live on grasslands, wetlands, and on seacoasts. You humans are destroying our habitat, chopping down forests, draining wetlands, digging up grasslands and rock, scraping the ocean floor, spewing chemicals into the air, water and soil, covering the land and seas with man-made structures, machines and garbage, introducing alien species (disease-causing microorganisms, plants and animals), and changing our climate as a result of your addiction to over-consumption.

Let’s zero in on Lanark County which, 300 years ago, was one vast forest before European settlers arrived. Where there were once endless expanses of towering old-growth forests, there are now fragmented forests with younger, smaller trees. Where once there were countless eagles, vultures, owls, nighthawks, fish hawks, cranes, geese, wild ducks, partridges, snow birds, teal, wild pigeons, blackbirds, thrushes, larks, and various other bird species, there are now fewer of these birds, and some of them are rarely or never seen in these parts.  The passenger pigeon, once so prolific that “early settlers told of felling 30 or more at one shot”, is now extinct.

Imagine:  In 1866 a flock of passenger pigeons in southern Ontario was described as being 1.5 km wide and 500 km long, and consisting of more than 3.5 billion birds.  After 1914 there were none at all, anywhere in the world.

As a result of Lanark County’s location on both the Canadian Shield and on the Champlain Sea, it has a variety of rock types and soils, elements of both northern boreal and southern forests, and a huge number of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands, which combine to provide vast potential for biological diversity.  This county has birds not found elsewhere in the province.

The European settlers, unlike the First Nations people who lived here prior to their arrival, plundered the birds, fish, and game that were in such abundance, until about 1890, when the Ontario government noticed a serious decline in many species of wildlife, and signed a Treaty on Migratory Birds to restrict indiscriminate hunting.  Not only did the settlers slaughter millions of birds and other animals, they razed forests, stripped riverbanks of vegetation, changed the direction of watercourses, and drained wetlands to build houses and factories, and create farmland.  They also brought with them plants and animals from other countries, several of which were invasive, crowding out the wildlife and vegetation that were part of our habitat. Areas that had the best soil for farming, such as the former Ramsay Township, lost as much as 80 per cent of their wetlands. Left with no place to find food and shelter, raise our families, and hide from predators, those of us who didn’t die were forced to migrate elsewhere.

When the early settlers first cleared the land, the open areas resulted in higher numbers of eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, and red-tailed hawks, but the subsequent exponential increase in housing subdivisions and the use of pesticides during the last century have caused a significant decline in some of these species.  Other species, however, have benefitted from the increase in forest fragmentation: the blue jay, the American crow, and the recently (re)introduced wild turkey.

Today, many of these human-perpetrated problems prevail, despite greater awareness and more government regulations to restrict environmental damage.  We are still experiencing loss of habitat, unsustainable use, pollution, climate change and competition from non-native species.  In some cases the government is dependent on the goodwill of private citizens.  Almost 90 percent of Lanark County’s forests are privately owned, which means that we birds depend on woodlot owners to ensure habitat preservation for forest-dwellers, such as the red-shouldered hawk, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, cerulean warblers, barred owls, pileated woodpeckers, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, ruffed grouse and winter wrens.

Wetlands provide the perfect habitat for the great blue heron, osprey, migratory waterfowl such as mallard ducks, and migratory songbirds, in addition purifying groundwater, protecting surface water, and moderating climate swings.  Unfortunately, the pressure to convert these precious wetlands into housing developments continues to blind today’s decision makers to what is being lost.

Birds that inhabit Lanark County’s lakes, rivers, and streams, are also reeling from the onslaught of human activity.  Loons are far less common than they once were because of the increase in waterfront dwellings and everything that goes with them.  Many of the humans living there have replaced the natural vegetation on their shorelines with their own version of what looks pretty, destroying our food sources. They race their motorized watercraft up and down rivers and lakes, creating huge waves that wash out bird nests along the shoreline. They pollute the air and water with sewage, chemicals, soaps and detergents, and garbage.  Human-generated carbon emissions are contributing to global warming, which is having an irreversible impact on our habitat – and yours too.

As a result of all these changes to the habitat of Lanark County, the following bird species are now at risk: the peregrine falcon (which is recovering somewhat in numbers following the reduction in pesticide use), the black tern, the loggerhead shrike, the barn owl, the red-shouldered hawk, and the greater-prairie chicken.  It must be admitted, however, that some species have exploded in numbers.  Wild turkeys (which may or may not have lived in Lanark County, although they did live elsewhere in eastern Ontario, but were then wiped out in Ontario in the early 1900s) have skyrocketed in numbers, from 253 in 1984, when they were (re)introduced to Lanark County, to well over 2,000 in 2006.

European starling in Almonte.

Many of us native birds have to deal with the proliferation of non-native birds. European starlings, introduced into North America in 1850, behave aggressively, have a highly varied diet, are disease-resistant, adapt easily to new environments, reproduce rapidly, and have taken over nesting spots favoured by bluebirds, flickers, tree swallows, great crested flycatchers, and other species). They now number about 200 million in North America. The house sparrow (first identified in Ontario in the 1870s) also has a deceptive exterior. There they are, cute, small, unassuming in their brown and white coats, and chirping ever so cheerfully, but just watch them.  If they want a particular nesting box, they will murder the current inhabitants, such as tree swallows, purple martins, and bluebirds, to get it. They colonize rapidly and can quickly displace native bird populations.  Their numbers in Ontario seem to be declining, however, despite their aggressiveness, rapid rate of growth and reproduction, and intelligence. (“A fast food restaurant in Australia had a set of doors that opened automatically when an “electric eye” was tripped. HOSP (House sparrows) learned to hover in front of the electric eye until the door opened, or to sit on top of the eye and lean over until they tripped the sensor.”) (www.sialis.org/hosphistory.htm, House Sparrow History (May 3, 2012), compiled by E.A. Zimmerman)

One native bird species that has clearly thrived despite human degradation of our habitat is the Canada goose. Nearly extirpated in the early 1950s, it is estimated that there are now nearly 500,000 birds in eastern Ontario throughout the summer months and early fall.  They have few natural predators, and thrive in man-made settings, such as golf courses, public parks and beaches, and housing subdivisions.  Unfortunately, most of us birds have been unable to adapt so successfully to man-made environments.

Despite all the disasters that have befallen my kin, I have to keep hoping that humans will finally see the light and change their ways.  Some humans are doing what they can to help.  When enjoying the great outdoors, they ensure their activities don’t damage our habitat. They advocate for us by monitoring and reporting changes in the natural environment, and lobbying government officials to enact and enforce regulations that protect our habitat.  They join nature groups and fish and game clubs that foster appreciation of our planet’s beauty and resources, and work to correct some of the damage that others have caused. There are farmers, woodlot owners, business people and homeowners who run their businesses and personal lives to not only minimize their impact on our natural environment, but to restore it for our benefit.

 What’s in it for you humans?  Like the canary in the coalmine (such a tragic outcome for several birds of that species), we birds are a reliable measure of the health of the ecosystem we all share.  All species, including humans, need an ecosystem that provides air, water, food, shelter, space, and a place to raise their young. Toxins in the air, water, or soil affect all of us.  The same goes for invasive species that attack our food sources, extreme weather events, depletion of water sources and raw materials and loss of  recreational areas,  and extreme temperatures.  You humans are often all too prone to jump at get-rich-quick schemes without thinking of the damage they will cause in the long term. You need to remember that we all play a vital role in our ecosystem, from the tiniest microbe and the smallest plant seed to the tallest tree and the largest animal.  For all our sakes, please use your intelligence to live sustainably, and be good stewards of the world we all live in.