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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative


Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

NBD Special (Part VII): Rare Birds, Birders, Conservation and the Media

Puffin Saved, Puffins Dying, and the Black-Throated Gray Warbler

Published 01/10/12

(Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a two-month series of blogs written by Barry from Canada and, from her perch at our Sacramento headquarters in Northern California, Senior Program Associate Monica Engebretson. Their “blog-off” is part of Born Free USA’s celebration of National Bird Day, which every year falls on Jan. 5.)

Barry writes:

There was, on the news, the heart-warming, feel-good story — just in time for Christmas — about the Atlantic puffin found on a downtown street in Montreal, unable to fly. Puffins are seabirds who, to fly, must launch themselves from cliffs, or take off from the water. This bird had wandered far inland, and would have died but for human intervention. The bird was flown to Newfoundland and turned over to an experienced wildlife rehabilitator, or rehabber, now working to make the bird healthy enough to be released into its natural environment.

No media bothered to mention that prior to the puffin in Montreal, a razorbill — an auk that is related to the puffin and lives in the same oceanic environment — showed up even farther from home, in the Niagara River. And that thrilled birders, those who love to see as many species as they can, and are particularly turned on by rarities or who keep provincial or state lists.

To birders there are basically two kinds of these “rarities”: those species who are endangered, thus rare in absolute terms, and those, which we used to refer to as “accidentals,” who appear far from they normally would be expected to be found. Finding the former usually means going to where they still exist; most “rarities” that excite birders are of the second kind, and that would have included the puffin, had he found a more natural place to put down than a Montreal sidewalk. The razorbill was a bona fide rarity.

Also at Christmas a smew was seen in Whitby Harbour, east of Toronto. And in case you are wondering, a smew is a small black and white merganser — a type of duck — native to Eurasia. She is a long way from home and assuming she has not simply escaped from some zoo or waterfowl keeper, she is a genuine rarity ... a species who sometimes does show up on our side of the Atlantic.

There was a small suite of rarities around the same time, Christmas, in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, where several warblers who normally would be spending the winter in the southern United States or even farther south, in the tropics, were found in one small area. Not all birds properly migrate and since the winter had, until then, been mild, these little insectivorous birds were surviving. Rarest of them was a black-throated gray warbler, a species native to western North America, where it breeds from British Columbia to northern Mexico. In winter almost the entire population migrates to Mexico. But a few do wander in other directions, and the field guide refers to them as “casual” in the east. It was a great find for birders, but I worry about the cold and snow to come. From a conservation perspective it makes no real difference if a single individual of such a common species (in the west) lives or dies.

Nor does the saving of a single puffin affect that species. But at the same time the news media were reporting on the adventures of the Montreal puffin (usually with a chuckle — do you notice how reporters always chuckle, smirk or make bad puns when reporting about animals?) a report surfaced linking mass starvation of Atlantic puffins, a species that, like the razorbill, breeds on both sides of the Atlantic and normally winters at sea, to declines in small and normally abundant species of fish. No surprise that the study showed puffins have a dependence on “small forage fish,” including sand lances, Atlantic herring and capelin, who used to be discarded by fisheries, or used as fertilizer or cat food. But what was new was that the study, published in Science and reported on Dec. 28, was that puffin populations died off when the number of small fish available was reduced by two-thirds — a result of the demands of commercial fisheries. And the threat is not just to puffins, but all 14 species of seabirds for which massive data from seven marine ecosystems around the world were examined.

We have long heard about overfishing of the large, predatory fish species — cod, sharks, tuna, swordfish and so on — with subsequent damaging ecological results, but we are really losing too many of all fish, since “the market” demands that we always have all the fish we want available in the supermarket or restaurant at all times, and never mind the consequences.

Add to that other problems — one can walk the shoreline of the Avalon peninsula at any time the wind blows shoreward and find dead seabirds, covered in oil from small, incremental spills and illegal but unreported bilge cleanings. That is the world we have created with our own demands, and we can’t save it one puffin at a time.

Three cheers for the effort, and for the Newfoundland rehabber who has saved so many, but we birders have to do more ... because if not us, who?

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