Protect migratory birds

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider

Cape May warbler

Readers of this column will be aware of my feelings about the Migratory Birds Convention Act. The purpose of this Act (established in Canada in 1916 and significantly upgraded in 1994) is to protect and conserve migratory birds and their nests. It does so by prohibiting the intentional or unintentional harming, disturbance or killing of migratory birds, including nests and eggs.  

But does this useful law ever get used? Rarely. According to Edward Cheskey, Nature Canada’s Naturalist Director, “Twenty-five million birds die annually from window collisions yet there has not been one conviction on this issue under the MBCA. House cats kill about 200 million birds annually with no prosecutions of cat owners or municipalities. Every year we hear of cases from all over Canada of activities that we know are destroying nests and killing birds, but these rarely, if ever, make it to the courts. Why is this? Lack of enforcement of the Act? Lack of public education? Misconceptions about the law or what it can and cannot do? Probably a bit of all three.”

The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) has been hesitant in Eastern Canada to enforce this law. CWS staff say they don’t know of nests being destroyed during clearcutting, roadbuilding, or clearing for development. Which can be translated as “we don’t actually go out and check” for the destruction of nests and nesting habitat.

Yet there may be light at the end of this depressing tunnel. Enter the Community Nest Finders Network, a new non-government organization in British Columbia that sprang up to look for nests in developments that are cutting during the prime bird breeding season (from late spring to the middle of summer). In essence, it is a non-profit group taking on a government role.

In 2021, these volunteers found and documented the nest of an Anna’s hummingbird in a forested area slated to be cut. These hummingbirds have a secure population in BC, one that is increasing. Yet when presented with indisputable evidence that cutting would destroy the nest of this protected migratory bird, government officials were forced to call a halt to the work until the breeding season was finished. And this work wasn’t some small-time forestry outfit—it was the massive TransMountain Pipeline Expansion!  

The work of the Community Nest Finders Network continues as they work to ensure that government officials enforce existing laws. It may seem as though an organization such as this one shouldn’t be needed—that’s what we have Conservation Officers for. But sadly, governments seem to need to be pushed to enforce many of the existing laws that protect both flora and fauna.

What would it mean here? It could mean, for example, that road clearing for a new wind farm would have to be done outside the breeding season. Or that at least on publicly owned land—where getting access wouldn’t be a problem—you could have groups of volunteers keeping an eye on what is nesting in sites that could potentially be cut.  

In Nova Scotia, conservation-minded groups are already using these methods to stop clearcutting when they are looking for rare lichens that are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Friends of Goldsmith Lake Wilderness Area has been investigating lichens and other plant and animal species in the area of a proposed goldmine. They are documenting their findings in the hopes that once exposed to the light of day, the destruction of wildlife habitat will not be allowed to continue.

This may turn out to be citizen science at its best and most useful.