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Birds and the Boreal Forest of North America

Stretching across Canada from Alaska to Newfoundland, the boreal forest of North America is a critically important breeding ground for billions of North America's birds. The boreal is vital to the abundance of bird life in the U.S. and Canada and contributes in a significant way to birdlife from Mexico to South America. Nearly 50% of the 700 species that regularly occur in the U.S. and Canada rely on the boreal for their survival. Over 300 species regularly breed in the boreal.

During spring migration up to 3 billion of birds fly through the U.S. to their breeding grounds in the boreal forest. Up to 5 billion birds (adults and offspring) fly south from the boreal each fall. 60% of these migrants spend the winter in the U.S. — making it the largest wintering grounds for boreal birds such as Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, Rusty Blackbirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

The responsibility of the boreal in sustaining some bird populations is startling:

  • 80% of the waterfowl species of North America, 63% of the finch species, and 53% of warbler species breed in the boreal.
  • For nearly 100 species, 50% or more of their entire breeding populations occur in the boreal.
  • Over 80% of the North American populations of 35 species occur in the boreal.

While the majority of the Canadian boreal is presently considered ecologically intact, oil and gas, timber, mining, and hydroelectric development are pushing northwards at increasing rates. In Ontario alone, 44,000 migratory bird nests were lost in 2001 due to logging. Given existing and proposed development in virtually every Canadian province and territory, the future of the boreal ecosystem and the birds that breed there will be largely determined over the next 5 to 10 years.

White-Throated SparrowWhite-throated Sparrow

The White-throated Sparrow's slow, clear song — pure sweet Canada, Canada, Canada, heard across still lakes and through the rugged forests — is almost an anthem for the boreal's unspoiled wilderness.

Learn more about the White-Throated Sparrow in our Comprehensive Bird Guide >

Many of North America's most rapidly declining birds are among those most reliant on the boreal forest for their survival. Waterfowl like Greater and Lesser Scaup have declined by about 150,000 birds per year since the late 1970's while the three scoter species have dropped by more than 50% since the 1950's. Another wetland bird species, the Horned Grebe, has declined by 60% since the late 1960's. Two of the species showing the most severe documented declines are species that are highly reliant on the boreal forest – the long-legged Lesser Yellowlegs and the ecologically-specialized Rusty Blackbird – both have seen drops of more than 90% over the last 40 years. Other species have had similarly steep declines like the tree-top inhabiting Olive-sided Flycatcher (79% overall decline) and the well-named Canada Warbler (80% overall decline).

Canada's boreal offers the best opportunity left in the world for large-scale world class forest conservation. Birders have been concerned with the wintering grounds of many North American migratory birds, but now it is apparent that we must focus attention on their North American breeding grounds as well.


Banner photo credit: CPAWS Wildlands League