Where are the birds?

By Kathy Morrell

Staff Writer

Bob Lavender invited passerby to join the Yellowhead Birding Trail Association. The group supports, promotes and/or manages a number of birding trails in the area including the Leflay Trail in Saltcoats.

Where are the birds?  Some say that with loss of habitat and global climate change there are fewer birds.  But is this, in fact, the truth?

For many area birders the answer is a definite yes.

On January 4, seven Saltcoats members of the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association (YFBTA) participated in an annual Christmas bird count. Within seven miles of the town, the group counted 7 ruffled grouse, 15 sharp-tailed grouse, 10 rock pigeons, 2 great horned owls, 12 downy woodpeckers, 9 hairy woodpeckers, 8 blue jays, 49 black-billed magpies, 78 common ravens, 66 black-capped chickadees, 4 white-breasted nuthatches, 122 house sparrows, 8 purple finches, 1 pine siskin and over 300 snow buntings. 

Amazingly enough, a robin was seen visiting bird feeders in the area on January 2nd.  A bald eagle was spotted on Christmas day.  Overall the count showed a significant decrease in bird numbers from the previous year.

The results of the Yorkton bird count appeared in the December 28 edition of Yorkton This Week.  There were 25 fewer species counted in the 2005 count as compared to the preceding year.  At Good Spirit Lake in 2005, birders observed a total of 140 birds among 14 species, a dramatic decrease from the 636 birds and 19 species tallied in 2004.

Anecdotal evidence suggests a decrease in bird population as well.  People are finding fewer birds at their feeders.

Bill Anaka, well-known local birder and author, has observed a down trend in most species, particularly the small migrants.

“Birders in the Saltcoats area have noted a decline in the song bird population, especially the finches,” said Walter Farquharson, president of the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association.  “People also talk about not hearing the song of the meadow lark or seeing a bobolink, once common species in the area.”

“The latest farming developments are making a difference,” explained Rob Wilson, birding enthusiast and secretary of YFBTA.  “Farms are becoming larger.  There are fewer farmyards with their caraganas, trees, and dugouts. These “little” spaces are the stopping and resting places for migrating birds.”

“With the clearing of more land, there is a loss of food supply.  Saskatoons, chokecherries, pin cherries, snowberries and wild roses are disappearing,” Farquharson explained. 

“As the number of farmsteads decrease, towns and villages become more important for birds,” he added.

“Agricultural chemicals are making a difference, too,” explained Bill Anaka.  Birds often feed on insects.  “Sprays, often aimed at reducing crop pests, reduce and poison the available food supply.”

But are there fewer birds?  Alan Smith, wildlife biologist with Environment Canada, takes a wait and see approach. 

“There are so many things going on,” he commented. “Yes, the average count, the average number of species, is down for 2005. But these are just preliminary figures.”

According to Smith, the redpolls, noticeably absent this winter, are staying in the north instead of heading for southern Saskatchewan.  With the mild weather, he explained, food is likely available in their summer habitat. 

“After all,” he added, “if you can eat at home, why travel?”

“There do seem to be fewer finches,” he said; “however, they are erratic in their behavior.  They tend to move around a lot.” 

His conclusion - their disappearance from an area for a year or two may not indicate their decline.

Some birds have seen an increase.  Ravens and other raptors, birds that feed on animal carcasses, are benefiting from an increase in deer population and road kill.

Geese are on the increase as well.  The male and female both defend the nest.  As a result, the eggs are more secure against such predators as the red fox and the raccoon. 

Ducks, on the other hand, have encountered more difficulty.  The male is not involved in protecting the nest.  As a result, ducks have been easier prey for an increased mammalian predator population.  

“Birds that used to migrate south are staying around,” Smith said.  “The finches, blue jays, chickadees and nuthatches are benefiting from bird feeders.”

 “Trends in bird population are difficult to determine,” Smith continued.  “You do not have a steady population.  There are cyclical fluctuations based on irregular weather and any number of other factors.”  

The Christmas bird count started in Saskatchewan in 1913.  A systematic bird count during the holiday season began in 1942.  Since then, three million birds have been counted.  More than 20,000 observers have spent more than 35,000 hours counting birds.

This information is vital for conservation. For example, local trends in bird populations can indicate habitat destruction or signal an immediate environmental threat, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from improper use of pesticides.

In the Good Spirit area, the Christmas bird count has continued over a period of more than 50 years.

“My reports show that Bill Anaka and Joyce Gunn began to participate in the Good Spirit Christmas bird count in 1953,” Smith reported. “They submitted separate results because they conducted the count on an individual basis.  Interestingly enough, after that year, they did a joint bird count and there was only one tally.  The counts were submitted in the names of Bill Anaka and Joyce Gunn.”

 “In 1971,” he continued, “there was a significant change in name.  This time, the bird count came in under the names of Bill and Joyce Anaka.  The couple had married in September.” 

The Anakas are active members of the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association.  In 2002, Bill Anaka co-authored Birds of Yorkton- Duck Mountain with C. Stuart Houston, a former Yorkton resident. 

The Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association will hold its annual general meeting on Saturday, February 18 at St. Gerard’s Parish Hall.  The day will include a short business meeting and speeches of general interest to birders and the general public alike.  To pre-register, phone 783-5193 before February 10.  New members are welcome.

Photos by Rob Wilson - Saltcoats, Saskatchewan

Photos  included in Yorkton This Week


Bohemian Waxwing




Purple Finch


Dark-eyed Junco

Blue Jay

This article has been reprinted from "Yorkton This Week" and was published Wednesday, February 8, 2006.

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