Every second Saturday in May, we celebrate World Migratory Bird Day in Canada and the US. This special day was created in 1993 by visionaries at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre. Every year a specific conservation theme leads the celebrations and awareness campaigns. In 2020, the theme is “Birds Connect Our World” to highlight the technologies used to track migrating birds.
Why are migratory birds so important that we dedicate one day to them? Some of the more obvious reasons are pest control, pollination, and seed dispersal. Did you know that birds have been estimated to consume 98% of certain insect pests? In addition, migratory birds also positively impact the economy. Buying bird food products, booking a birding tour, or bird hunting generate revenue and create jobs.
Migratory birds undertake long journeys and thus require healthy habitats. However, urban developments, agriculture, and other human activities contribute to a continuous decline of their habitats. Therefore, it is crucial to conserve birds and spread awareness about their importance!
Why do birds migrate?
According to an article by DW it is estimated that 50 BILLION animals migrate worldwide every year! Birds do not migrate to escape cold temperatures, they do so in order to find food. Birds that remain where they are do so because they are grain eaters and carnivores. They don’t depend on insects as their main food supply and do not require to migrate south where more insects can be found during the winter months. Birds migrate back North in the spring because the warm south brings dry and hot summers. Therefore, the food supply is not as beneficial anymore. In addition, migrating North in the spring also means that they do not compete with local birds for food.
How do birds find their way back North?
Migratory birds and an excellent sense for internal navigation which has three compasses: the sun, the stars, and the magnetic field. So, birds migrating during the day orient themselves by the position of the sun, birds migrating at night do so by the position of the stars. Migratory birds perceive the magnetic field lines of the earth and can recognize whether they are flying towards the poles or the equator!
Migratory birds travel very long distances. A tagged bar-tailed godwit was recorded, in 2007, as having flown 11,600 kilometers from Western Alaska to New Zealand, in a single nine-day stretch. That probably makes it the record-holder for non-stop flight.
Migratory Birds in Saskatchewan
Because Saskatchewan is on the migration route for many species, birds travel through the province from all over the world. Now is the time for the spring rush of songbirds and shorebirds, endangered species such as Piping Plovers, Sage Grouse, Burrowing Owls, and even the Whooping Crane as it stops over in Saskatchewan during its spring and fall migrations. More than 15 species of shorebirds nest in the province while others stop over briefly en-route to their breeding grounds in Arctic Canada. For World Migratory Bird Day we are going to highlight two endangered bird species which can be found in our watershed. The Piping Plover and the Burrowing Owl.
Migrating Bird Species SSRW
- The Piping Plover Charadrius melodus circumcinctus
The Piping Plover is a small migratory shorebird. It has a pale, dry sand-colored back and head, white underparts, and orange legs. When in breeding plumage, the short bill is orange with a black tip, a single black band stretches between the eyes, and one runs across the breast. Piping Plovers are characterized by their high-pitched “pipe” call and habit of breeding on open sand or gravel beaches.
Piping Plovers are covered under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994. In Saskatchewan, the Piping Plover is listed as endangered in The Wild Species at Risk Regulations under The Wildlife Act (part V). This designation protects the Piping Plover from being disturbed, collected, harvested, captured, killed, and exported, and it protects its nest from disturbance and destruction.
Recent surveys in 2006 showed that Piping Plovers were found at 66 wetlands and the South Saskatchewan River including Lake Diefenbaker. In Saskatchewan, threats include predation of eggs and young, habitat and productivity losses owing to water management and precipitation, and habitat quality changes because of drought, recreational activities, and cattle grazing and trampling on beaches.
Both the 1991 and 1996 International Piping Plover censuses identified Lake Diefenbaker, in southern Saskatchewan, as hosting one of the largest continental breeding populations, representing up to 19% of the population of the Canadian prairie and 5% of the total North American population.
- Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia
The Burrowing Owl is also considered an endangered species that nests and roosts in burrows, such as those excavated by prairie dogs. Their population in the prairie provinces continues to decline and it is estimated that fewer
than 1,000 pairs remain in. They leave for their wintering areas in the southeastern United States and Mexico in September, and return to Canada in April, almost 3,400km away!
Major threats are the loss of habitat, to urban development and agriculture, that they need to survive. Agricultural crops don’t provide the habitat that burrowing owls require, so the owls are restricted to the small fragments of prairie that remain as cattle pastures.
“Operation Burrowing Owl” was established in Saskatchewan in 1987 to encourage landowners to protect the Burrowing Owls’ nesting habitat. By 1994, 534 landowners in Saskatchewan had committed themselves to protect owl habitats.
In Moose Jaw, SK you can find the Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Centre. The purpose of this centre is to help promote the conservation of the endangered Burrowing Owl and their prairie habitat through education, stewardship, and eco-tourism.