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Canada rings the changes for study of northern birds

Nature volume 430, page 957 (26 August 2004) | Download Citation

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Ornithologists call on new technology for studies of boreal wilderness

On song: the white-throated sparrow is a familiar summer resident of northern forests. Image: L. ELLIOTT/NATURESOUND STUDIO

Ornithologists are laying high-tech plans to study the feathered forest dwellers of Canada's northern wilderness.

Billions of birds live in the country's 6 million square kilometres of boreal habitat. The rugged isolation protects around 200 species, but also stymies biologists who want to study them. And the need to understand the area's bird life has become urgent, as oil, gas, timber and mining firms begin to stake claims in the forests.

The Canadian Wildlife Service plans to use innovative techniques, many new to ornithologists, to research the region's birds. “In the past few years, there have been tremendous advances that suddenly make a study of this scale and scope a realistic possibility,” says Mike Norton, a boreal biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton. He discussed the plan at a joint meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists in Quebec City, Canada, on 16–21 August.

The use of one new technique, stable isotope analysis, has been pioneered by Norton's ornithologist colleague Keith Hobson, based in Saskatoon. After trapping a bird, he plucks a single feather and measures the amounts of the different isotopes of hydrogen in the sample. As the levels of individual isotopes differ in water from different parts of the forest, “this lets us define where the birds we capture are coming from, and also where they spend the winter at the end of their migration,” says Hobson.

Other new tools include improved omnidirectional microphones to collect faithful sound recordings in the wilderness. Such equipment can help make up for a dearth of trained ornithologists able to go to the boreal forest to identify songbirds, says Norton. And, he adds, better ways of modelling statistical data will help researchers interpret the information they collect.

Norton estimates that the scheme will cost about Can$15 million (US$11.5 million) a year and will take a decade to plan fully, although he hopes to start implementing parts of it over the next few years.

Researchers say that the new techniques must be ramped up before much more of the wilderness disappears. They point out that the region is crucial for birds across the entire North American continent. In May 2003, the non-profit group Bird Studies Canada, based in Port Rowan, Ontario, found that one out of every three North American land birds breeds in the boreal region. But the same study also raised a red flag — it reported that 40 boreal species are in decline.

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