By Jeff Wells
Recent graphic images of dead and dying ice-covered birds along Buffalo’s waterfront gave startling testament to the impact the dreadful cold this winter’s polar vortex has had on wildlife.
The birds, waterfowl whose feeding areas have progressively shrunk as more and more of Lake Huron has become covered in ice, included larger than usual numbers of species like white-winged scoters and red-breasted mergansers. Though typically out of sight and mind of the average Buffalo citizen, these birds are actually regular winter residents of the open waters of the Great Lakes.
While we can do little in the short term for these birds, there are long-term actions that can ensure these and other species will remain a part of our landscape. Here on the birds’ wintering grounds, we need continued efforts to ensure clean waters with healthy populations of their aquatic food sources.
But these birds also need help in their summer breeding grounds – the vast boreal forest of northern Canada. Each spring, birds like white-winged scoters and red-breasted mergansers begin a journey north that takes them to pristine and isolated lakes and ponds sprinkled across Canada’s boreal forest region in the millions.
Imagine. They go from seeing the Buffalo skyline every winter night to seeing nothing but a starlit sky above them on a beautiful lake, surrounded by miles of green forests each summer.
Up north, there’s still plenty of room for these birds to spread their wings.
The boreal forest region of Canada and Alaska is one of the last and largest ecologically intact regions of the planet with at least 1.2 billion acres still virtually untrammeled.
The region is estimated to support between 1 billion and 3 billion nesting birds each summer and is known as North America’s bird nursery.
But this pristine habitat is also under constant pressure for resource extraction including from forestry, hydroelectricity generation, mining and others.
Far to the northwest of Buffalo in northern Ontario, a major debate is raging about how to best extract the mineral wealth in the so-called Ring of Fire. Its development would require the building of roads or railways 100 miles or more into what is now roadless, intact boreal forest.
So, how can we help the boreal birds survive – not just the Western New York winter - but in the long term? One way is to support efforts to conserve industry-free large tracts of boreal forest and wetlands in Canada, where young birds can be raised to maintain population levels large enough so they rebound from unexpected losses like those suffered on Buffalo’s shoreline.
Jeff Wells is the senior scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, former director of Bird Conservation for Audubon New York and an associate of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.