Volunteering to save the birds

Western meadowlark (photo by Jason Bantle)

Western meadowlark (photo by Jason Bantle)

Part of the work of a land conservation organization like the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is helping to monitor is the state of the species that live there.

Conservation and science employees in NCC’s Saskatchewan Region spend a portion of every summer waking up at 3 a.m. to stand on an NCC property and document the birds.

As the sun rises behind them, they conduct surveys called point counts. Point counts are a research method used for the long-term monitoring of species composition and abundance of bird communities to help inform NCC’s land management practices and help other organizations monitor the decline of grassland birds.

According to Alayna Chan, the Saskatchewan region’s GIS intern, these surveys are called “point counts” because you conduct them by choosing several points spread across the property to stop and monitor at. Alayna says that at each point they take exactly five minutes to record how many different bird species they can observe from the point they are standing. In addition to recording the number of different species, NCC staff like Alayna also count how many individuals of each species they can identify. Point counts are an important tool for collecting population and location data on species at risk.

Sarah Ludlow, the Saskatchewan Region’s conservation science coordinator-GIS and resident bird expert, knows how important point counts are, not only to NCC’s work as a conservation organization, but to the protection of Canadian bird populations in general: “The primary way scientists determine that a species’ population is declining is through monitoring the abundance and distribution of that species over a long period of time. Abundance is determined by counting individuals, while distribution is determined by documenting where the species occurs. Typically, when scientists measure abundance, they are, by default, documenting occurrence as well.” The programs in place for documenting abundance, Sarah says, rely on point counts done by volunteers and partner organizations like NCC.

Bird monitoring programs like the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) are administered by the federal government, but the surveys and data they use come from all the citizen scientists across North America who do point counts and submit their findings.  

This year, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative released a report on the state of Canada’s bird populations. In their report, they noted that 66 per cent of the data they used came from programs like the BBS, who rely on people like Sarah to volunteer their time.  

Their report found that Canada has lost 57 per cent of their grassland bird population since 1970 and that urgent conservation action is needed to bring these birds back from the brink. The steady decline of grassland birds in due in large part to loss of habitat: more than 70 per cent of Canada’s native grassland has been converted.

NCC's Saskatchewan Region is working every day to preserve the habitat of the grassland birds and every summer to help to monitor their populations, and you can too.

Help the NCC protect the Canadian grasslands here, and help the BBS monitor birds here.

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