One of my delights as a teenager growing up in Maine was to watch the stream of Cliff Swallows that darted from their gourd-shaped nests under the eaves of the barn to search for the insects they fed their rapidly growing young. That same barn still stands in the same place, essentially the same as it was those 40 years ago. But the swallows are gone. They’ve been gone for several decades in fact and they are gone from most of their former nesting places in New England. Cliff Swallows are only one of a group of insect-eating birds in North America that have undergone major declines in the last half century.
A recent article written by Brooke Jarvis for the New York Times Magazine entitled “Insect Apocalypse” may provide a clue as to why.
In it, Jarvis describes the mounting evidence that the overall numbers of insects on the planet have drastically declined in recent decades. The first major awareness of this problem came in the form of a 2016 academic paper that reported that overall abundance of insects had plummeted by more than 70% in 63 German nature reserves surveyed over the last 27 years.
These alarming drops have major implications for birds and other species that depend on insects, but research points to a powerful solution: conserving large expanses of healthy lands and waterways where living things, including insects, can find refuge.
Places like the Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska where there are still an estimated 1.2 billion acres of largely intact forests and wetlands interconnected with countless streams, rivers, lakes and ponds are especially critical to protect. This massive expanse of intact habitat is estimated to support between one and three billion nesting birds—birds that rely upon abundant insects to survive and raise their young.
Insects are a particularly important part of a healthy planet. As the base of the food chain, abundant insects are required to support the billions of birds and fish and other animals of Canada’s Boreal Forest. Bird researchers have independently discovered that some of the fastest declining birds in North America are birds that capture insects in flight—technically known as “aerial insectivores.” This group includes the aptly named flycatchers as well as swallows and nightjars (birds like nighthawks and whip-poor-wills). Sadly, Canada’s official list of federally threatened species now reads like a who’s who of aerial insectivores including the Bank and Barn swallows, Olive-sided Flycatcher, the Common Nighthawk and the Eastern Whip-poor-will.
In the final month of the Year of the Bird and at a time when Canada and other nations are striving to reach their international commitment to protect at least 17% of their terrestrial lands, moving protected areas proposals more quickly to the finish line needs to be a priority. And in Canada Indigenous governments and communities are leading the way with a multitude of land-use plans and indigenous protected areas proposals already on the table or in process.
When humanity is confronted with problems like the “insect apocalypse” and all its implications for the health and future of our world, all of us from individuals up to governments, need to express our support for expediting conservation. Let’s show our support and get behind the Indigenous conservations proposals in the Boreal Forest region of Canada and around the world.