Bird Studies Canada
Our Impact Why We Exist
Many people are unaware of the wild species in their home environments, especially urban citizens from newcomer and inner-city communities. Bird Studies Canada’s Toronto program teaches these audiences about the vibrant bird species that their city hosts, and the rich and varied natural ecosystems that can be enjoyed here. We do this by recruiting urbanites to participate in large scale bird monitoring programs (efforts in which city people are sorely underrepresented), and also by creating new programs that are specifically aimed at urban birds and people. We find that birds are an ideal group to focus on when beginning nature education: not only are they visible and beautiful, they are also widespread and present throughout the year. Connecting city people to their local wild birds will provide a richer quality of life for them, and create an advocacy base for local nature preservation.
Our Story What We Do
Bird Studies Canada was founded as the Long Point Bird Observatory in 1960 by a group of volunteers with a passion for understanding bird migration. Since our inception, the organization has grown to include programs and supporters from every region in Canada. Our regional offices (including one in Toronto) coordinate provincial breeding bird atlases, urban programs, species recovery plans, and youth education initiatives. BSC is Canada’s leading science-based bird conservation organization, with bird information collected through surveys, studies, and observatories, our research has a direct impact on provincial, national, and international conservation action. BSC is a national registered charitable organization. Each year, more than 30,000 volunteer citizen scientists at all skill levels participate in more than 20 research and monitoring programs at local, regional and international levels. Citizen science allows communities to take action by contributing actual data for conservation science, all while enjoying the beauty of Canada’s wild birds and increasing their ecologically literacy.
Our Programs How We Do It
BSC coordinates more than twenty Citizen Science-based programs including Project NestWatch, Project FeederWatch, the Christmas Bird Count, and the Provincial Breeding Bird Atlases. Volunteers in Toronto also have the unique opportunity to participate in local programs specifically tailored for the urban environment and volunteers from a variety of ages and skill levels.
Few urban phenomena compare to the nightly retreat of Chimney Swifts going to roost, and even for seasoned SwiftWatch volunteers, the sight of hundreds of swifts streaming into a chimney like smoke in reverse never gets old! The Chimney Swift, provincially and federally listed as a Threatened species, is primarily an urban bird that makes its home in chimneys. Historically, Chimney Swifts nested and roosted in large hollow trees, but adapted to using chimneys as the old-growth forests that hosted these nesting sites were destroyed following European settlement. A century later, Chimney Swifts are again threatened by the loss of their surrogate habitat as traditional chimney structures are modified or replaced. Volunteers for this program locate new roosts and nesting chimneys and monitor existing sites by counting the number of swifts gathering in the evenings.
Toronto SwiftWatch has just begun its fifth season. Since 2011, we have recruited and trained over 50 volunteer citizen scientists who have identified nearly 200 active chimneys, including 17 roosts that host large numbers of birds. In 2013 alone, our volunteers surveyed 115 new chimneys in Toronto, and the group continues to build on these accomplishments. Many of these volunteers had no prior experience with bird surveying or identification, but are now contributing to a national pool of data that is shared with government at all levels and community partners to prevent further destruction of swift habitat.
The Common Nighthawk is a widespread North American bird that has successfully adapted to nesting in urban environments, though they can also be found as far north as the Canadian boreal forest. In late August, these birds stage impressive migrations through Toronto on their way to their wintering grounds in South America - hundreds of birds may pass through on a single evening! Historically, nighthawks were a common sight in Toronto. Their enigmatic “peent” calls and spectacular booming territorial displays were a memorable part of summer evenings in the city. More recently, they have declined for reasons that are not well understood, although it is suspected to be in part due to reduced availability of the gravel rooftops for nesting.
NighthawkWatch is run with the High Park Nature Centre between August 17th and September 6th every year. The program is suitable for beginner and experienced birders alike. The forested environment of High Park provides an insect-rich corridor of green space for migrating birds in the heavily developed urban landscape. As nighthawks congregate in the park in large numbers before their southward migration, there is an opportunity to obtain a snapshot of the local nighthawk population- a difficult task during other parts of the species’ life cycle. Volunteers record numbers of birds, and where possible, the age and sex of migrating nighthawks as they pass over the park, providing invaluable demographic information for a species that is otherwise quite difficult to detect and monitor.
Toronto NighthawkWatch piloted in 2013 as a joint project with the High Park Nature Centre. In 2014, volunteers recorded 1874 birds over 23 days of monitoring from August 15th to September 7th. We also delivered successful community count events to introduce local youth and families to the Common Nighthawk, species at risk monitoring, and how they can become involved with our urban programs.
Eastern Screech Owl Surveys
Eastern Screech Owls are widespread and relatively common throughout their range, but are often under-counted on traditional bird surveys, which are conducted at the wrong times of day and year to detect them. Most Toronto residents may be surprised to learn that there are owls in their city, but in fact Screech Owls are surprisingly tolerant of urban locations and have been recorded nesting in small city parks, woodlots and even residential backyards! Studies have been done in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but relatively little is known about their distribution, abundance, and habitat preferences in Toronto.
Eastern Screech Owls make an ideal monitoring target because they are one of the top urban predators, and thus a good indicator of overall ecosystem health. Where present, they respond very well to the right survey protocols and become quite easy to detect. Volunteers for this program survey along predetermined routes in mid-March and early May to help fill the gaps in knowledge about this owl’s abundance and use of the urban landscape, as well as population trends over time as the project continues. The program introduces the public to a secretive and enigmatic city-dwelling species that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to observe.
Many Torontonians have bird feeders in their yards- it is one of the best ways to enjoy nature from the comfort of one’s own home. The simplicity of backyard bird feeding makes it an ideal nature appreciation activity for all ages, and feeder birds can be enjoyed in all weather and seasons. Winter is the most popular time to put out feeders, but spring and fall feeders may also attract migrant birds that are just passing through, and in the summer, locally nesting birds may even bring their fledged young for a visit!
Project FeederWatch is a flexible, family-friendly program that involves counting visiting feeder birds between November and April. The program, which operates North America-wide with the help of thousands of participants, helps us to better understand bird populations and movements on a large scale. Several species that frequent feeders are not native to our area, and monitoring changes in their populations may shed light on the fates of the native birds they compete with. Others types of common winter feeder birds, such as the boreal-breeding finches, nest in inaccessible northern areas rarely surveyed. Watching them when they visit our area during the winter provides some of the best opportunities for studying them. These species also often have highly irregular seasonal movements, and do not visit Toronto every year - FeederWatch can help track “invasions” of these species when they happen and paint a picture of the lives of these highly nomadic species.
Bird monitoring is not just about recording rare or at-risk species- much can be learned from Toronto’s common birds, even the American Robins nesting on the porch light or the Common Grackle in your backyard bushes! Project NestWatch is designed to get people across Canada involved in collecting data on nesting birds to create a long-term picture of bird distribution, basic biology, and the effects of changes in habitat and climate. This is a summer program suitable for volunteers of all skill levels interested in birds.