This Spring, with many of us forced to stay close to home and contemplate an uncertain future, one of the great consolations has been watching our local birds. We’ve taken comfort in observing them going about their natural seasonal business, even as the human world turned on its axis.
The nesting season timing has meant that — some of us for the first time in our lives — have closely observed the hope and the drama inherent in the process; the careful strategy of site selection, the tireless work of collecting twigs, followed by soft materials for a cosy lining. In a somewhat quieter world, we’ve been better able to hear the fierce and beautiful territorial songs. “Stay away from this tree! This tree is my tree! I am a fearsome warrior house finch! Trespassers beware!”
Nesting and fledgling young is a brave and precarious avian mission every year. There’s so much that can go wrong: stolen eggs; fallen hatchlings; predators; window strikes by novice flyers. We cheer to ourselves when we see the clumsy fledglings finally out of the nest and begging for food, experiencing that small vicarious thrill of victory over circumstance that makes the day a little brighter.
Author Jennifer Ackerman wrote a beautiful piece about our newly strengthened bonds with our backyard birds in the New York Times, titled What Birds Do for Us and What We Can Do for Them.
And, what can we do for them, in return for the joy they bring to us?
Well, surely here in Canada our birds are at least protected during nesting season by our Migratory Birds Act?
And certainly, Vancouver (Greenest City 2020 with its very own Bird Strategy must be especially diligent in this area?
Naively, I’d have thought so until one week ago today — when a work crew arrived and felled most of the Notre Dame poplars at the height of nesting season. We knew the trees were destined to go at some time, since the City gave permission for Notre Dame School’s artificial turf facility and tree removal last year, but it honestly never occurred to me that they would come for the trees at peak nesting time.
Apparently we love our birds in Vancouver, as long as they don’t get in the way. Even during nesting season.
But cut them they did, the very day after I posted my last blog post arguing against it. Today most of the Notre Dame poplars are now stumps.
While I’m still in shock, I’m thinking of ways to move forward with what I’ve learned over this last week and a bit.
My goals now are:
- to share what I learned through this process in case it can help others in the future
- to have the remaining ten poplar trees left alone until nesting season is over.
According to the Migratory Bird Act of 1994, it seems as if most birds in Canada are protected from disturbance during nesting season.
That’s what the Act says. That’s what I thought was the law, and judging by the many people who commented on my blog and my social media last week, that’s what most Canadians think. But, apparently, we’re all wrong!
Last week offered a master class on how developers and construction crew routinely get around the Act … with a little help from City Hall. If you’d like to see a timeline and some pictures of how things unfolded here last week, see Chainsaw Timeline.
So that was last week. This week, I’m trying to look forward.
1. Going Forward — Big Picture
What did I learn since last week? Well, obviously the first thing was — I shouldn’t be so naive and optimistic about the legal protections offered to Canadian wildlife.
Second, at least now I know that the best government department to contact in this situation is the enforcement branch of Environment Canada, as they are ultimately responsible for enforcing the migratory bird convention act. However, you do have to go through the national number — 1-800-668-6767 — to reach someone.
I finally did get in touch with an actual Wildlife Canada enforcement officer to report the situation, although not until most of the trees were down. He said his department would look into the matter and I’m waiting to hear back from him.
I also made contact with the President of the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, which oversees the Maplewood Flats Bird Sanctuary in North Vancouver. He wrote the following powerful letter on our behalf, sent it to various people and Vancouver City Hall, and kindly gave me permission to reprint it here.
The Wild Bird Trust of BC is seriously concerned with the removal of mature trees in the height of nesting season which surround the Notre Dame high school in East Vancouver.Given the serious optics of skimming past or minimizing contravention of the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994) we would like to understand how only a nominal pair of nests was identified in this significant urban green space. Given the Greenest City objectives and the COV’s commitment to transparency (as well as in support of food faith and building and repairing trusting relationships in communities) information concerning the trees removal should be made immediately available to the Notre Dame Neighbours Committee. Such information would be a scientific report provided by Notre Dame’s contracted biologist which was used by the City to green light mature poplar trees being removed at the height of nesting season. The Wild Bird Trust of BC is also interested to review the report submitted to the City.We are concerned that local residents organizing to protect nesting birds would be required by the City to pursue an FOI to access a biologists report which was sent to the City to justify the actions. Treating this information as confidential is totally against the spirit of transparency, and the Greenest City objectives of promoting citizen engagement with its principles.It is our request that no further trees be removed until the report is made public, outside of any FOI process, and that the City not approve the removal of mature trees in nesting season without (at the very least) providing transparency in decision making.Sincerely,Irwin OostindiePresident, Wild Bird Trust of BC
I’ve spent a lot of time this week looking into the whole issue of how trees and birds are protected (or not) during nesting season. I’ve spoken to a lot of experts in the subject and learned quite a bit. For example, my intuitive mistrust of the whole “nest count” concept, as outlined in the last blog post, is backed up in the Government of Canada’s own Guidelines to Reducing Risks to Migratory Birds. Nest counts, which the school letter seemed to indicate were being employed, are not considered best practice in all cases, although, we can’t actually know exactly what methodology was used, as the report is being kept hidden from public view, pending our Freedom of Information request.
A term I’d never heard before is “incidental take.” This, it turns out, is what has happened here and it’s a hot topic amongst biologists, environmentalists, government of various levels and industry and real estate stake holders.
From the prospectus for Avoiding Incidental Take of Bird Nests: from law to practice — a conference held in 2017 at the Columbia Mountain Institute of Applied Ecology.
A hundred years ago, on August 16, 1916, the Migratory Birds Convention was signed by Canada and the USA. The Convention was implemented in Canada by the Migratory Birds Convention Act (the MBCA). In 1980, a clause was added to the regulations under the MBCA which prohibits the destruction, disturbance, or take of nests and eggs. This prohibition – often referred to as “incidental take’ – applies even if the activity which causes the harm is not directed at the nest or egg and is otherwise legal. In the period after 1980 the prohibition was largely overlooked in economic practices and by regulators, and incidental take was widespread. However, in recent years there has been an increase in awareness (and enforcement) of the prohibitions, and consequent requirements to address it in Environmental Protection Plans and Environmental Assessment Certificate requirements.
It seems that there are a lot of inconsistencies and grey areas between what is laid out in the federal protections for birds and what happens closer to reality. When the Vancouver City Arborist receives a biologist’s all clear, it seems that’s all that’s needed to get a permit and start those chainsaws. It seems to me, and others, that there are many problems with this system: convenient for builders; fatal for birds.
So, if birds have been a source of joy and comfort for you in these trying times, you might want return the favour by dropping your local, provincial or federal representatives a quick line on this topic.
Journalists who have written stories about our increased love for birds during the pandemic might want to follow up on this thread.
2. Save the Remaining Poplars
Ten trees were left as a buffer around the white crowned sparrow nest the biologist reported seeing. I am convinced there were nests scattered throughout the whole stand of trees and that they all should have been left.
It was tragic to see birds of various species examining the logged tree area in the days after the cutting.
Even these ten poplars are not safe until the end of nesting season — only reprieved until June 23 when the biologist will return for another nest assessment. If they’re declared “nest free” the City will issue yet another cut permit and they’ll be down later that day or the next.
Even if the young sparrows in the current nests have fledged, many species of local birds make a second nest in a single season. I’m already seeing white crowned sparrows only feet from the poplars collecting material for that second nest.
I am therefore asking Notre Dame School and the City of Vancouver to release the initial biologist’s report to the public and leave these ten remaining trees to fulfil their role as a nest site for one last season. Given that it’s really impossible to see who’s living up there, the birds deserve the benefit of the doubt this time.
How You Can Help
If you’d like to get in touch with your City Representatives — either on the BIG PICTURE matter of issuing cutting permits in nesting season and how nests are counted, or the SMALL PICTURE issue of saving the ten surviving poplars for a few more weeks, here is their contact information.
For more background see the Notre Dame Neighbours web site.
*Some stories about how people are discovering the joy of birds during the pandemic.
- What Birds Do for Us and What We Can Do for Them by Jennifer Ackerman: New York Times
- Backyard Birding Takes Flight, Stuart Derdeyn, Vancouver Sun
- Backyard birdwatching: How to enjoy nature with kids while staying at home by Gina Bell: The Guardian
- Bird-Watching Has Boomed During the Pandemic By Christine Cotroneo
9 thoughts on “Conditional Bird Love”
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I salute your courage and perseverance in this sad example of how those who don’t care in the slightest for the creatures of our world manipulate laws to get their way. If nature’s an inconvenience, they enlist the aid of amoral people in officialdom to skirt around the laws put in place to protect nature. Disgusting. Thank goodness for people like you, June. Good luck with your quest for justice for the nesting birds.
Sadly the rest of the trees were removed a week or more ago. Only the lovely poplar smell lingers as the stumps and some branches are all that’s left. It makes me sad for the trees, the birds. Also for the future unless we can rethink our priorities.
Ah June….you are a beautiful soul. Bless you for your tireless efforts in representing and being a voice for these sweet creatures.
Well, June, this has been a sad experience. I’ve followed this whole saga from the beginning and the worst of it is, it leaves one feeling so completely helpless.
I’m sure you know all the pertinent sites out there, but I came across this one and just on the off chance you will find it useful, here it is:
Thanks, Joanne. 🙂
Heartbreaking – and infuriating – beyond belief. It does make one come to think all the laws that exist are not worth the paper they are printed on, if municipal, provincial and federal administrators don’t ACT on them, and see that they are enforced. Sadly, there has been such a vast reduction in environmental oversight over the past 20 years or more – definitely at the federal level (why you could only reach a phone number back east to try to reach someone there, Env Canada has been gutted the past 20 yrs+ as most of its staff were removed to Ottawa), and certainly at the provincial level with all the environmental laws, regulation and staffing cuts the BC Liberal gov’t instated since 2001. I can only say, for sure, if individuals and other bird lovers and those concerned about the environment truly care – please write all your local government officials, continue to make your voices heard that the environment – and our local bird life – matter to you. This should not have occurred. This is a classic example of no law and no government official putting their money where their mouth is. It’s entirely discouraging. We sit and accuse Brazil for cutting down their Amazon, and yet we can’t even save a stand of vital, productive and important habitat old growth trees in our own neighbourhood.
June, thanks for all your efforts. It is to weep to think of all the birds and animals who have now lost their home in those trees. We must do better next time.
I will definitely write some follow-up letters to the City of Vancouver, and the Notre Dame School giving them a blast. I am so thoroughly disgusted, appalled and upset at what has occurred.
Take care, June. I feel your pain.
Thank you, again, for all this coverage.
Thanks Carol. It’s very true that we need to make our voices heard for governments at any level to listen. In Vancouver, the local government hears a lot from sports groups who are looking for more space to play on. While I can appreciate that need, I really do think the rush to artificial turf as a solution is a big mistake, health and environment-wise. Ditto getting rid of trees. We’ll all be fighting for space in the shade in a few years time! Governments seem to listen to those voters they hear from the most and currently, I can only assume, that bird and nature lovers, and those worried about climate change, are not being the most vocal. It’s much easier for sports groups and private schools to mobilize calls to government as they have handy mailing lists at their finger tips. Developers have contacts in high places. So I guess we just have to try harder.
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