Living in rural New Brunswick I have many opportunities to connect with nature in my backyard. I have a family and we fish, hike, snowshoe, garden, pick fiddleheads, forage for mushrooms, and watch birds. The birds are my favorite. People in cities sometimes have different opportunities to connect with the natural world. So, I began to wonder how to connect with nature in the city.
In late May, I spoke with Joe Nocera, an ornithologist and professor of wildlife ecology at the University of New Brunswick. Ornithology is the study of birds. While some ornithologists study bird physiology, anatomy, or behaviour, Nocera focuses on birds and their relationships to their environments.
While we talked a lot about how city people interact with nature in urban settings, our hour-long conversation turned to many things—most of all how forestry policy in New Brunswick affects not just the forest but also the birds who live there.
Nocera explained that he sometimes might have up to a dozen projects on the go, but that he currently has one, a three-fold project: the management options for waterfowl, the population decline of aerial insectivores (birds that feed on insects while flying), and the ways birds respond to the attempts to control the spruce budworm that thrives in New Brunswick’s boreal forests.
New Brunswick is home to the Acadian forest, composed of the boreal forest from the north, and the Appalachian hardwood forest from the south.
“We are at the southern edge range of a number of [bird] species and at the northern edge range of a number of other species,” explained Nocera.
At its best, the Acadian forest, with its mix of softwood and hardwoods, makes a home for diverse plant and wildlife communities, including lynx, moose, deer, flying squirrels, and many, many species of birds, even though only a tiny fraction of the original Acadian forest remains.
As our forests have been degraded, so have the habitats for the birds that find a home there. (See Bob Bancroft’s excellent NB Media Co-op article on the topic.)
The province established the New Brunswick’s Crown Land and Forest Act in 1980, which, despite minor amendments, remains policy today. Suffice to say the policy is outdated and old-fashioned, while allowing practices of clearcutting and plantation monocultures that have created complex issues for aquatic and terrestrial landscapes and wildlife, especially birds.
Over a century, New Brunswick has allowed commercial logging to transform its forests; anthropogenic climate change promises to create another transformation as warmer weather will change the forest. As the forests are warming, northern boreal species are suffering. So too are the birds that find their home in such forests.
Consider the Balsam fir.
Nocera explained how the Balsam fir—which find their southern range in New Brunswick—attract white-tailed deer, moose, red squirrels, chipmunks, and porcupines. Firs provide a breeding habitat for Downy Woodpeckers, Boreal Chickadees, and Bicknell’s Thrush. They are the northern extent of the Crossbill, which enjoy feasting on the fir’s winged seeds. The Pine Grosbeak enjoys making a nest in the fir.
As we spoke about this avian diversity, I wondered aloud about why our provincial bird is the common Black-Capped Chickadee.
In 1983, New Brunswick chose its official bird during a competition organized by the New Brunswick Federation of Naturalists; people across the province cast a ballot for their favorite bird; the Chickadee won.
Nocera explained how the Black-Capped Chickadee is not unique to New Brunswick, nor is it rare, nor is it endangered. Yet, this common bird is popular and carries a lovely tune.
I asked Nocera, “Would another bird better represent New Brunswick and our unique ecology?”
The Chestnut-Sided Warbler, Nocera answered instantly.
He explained that the Warbler would make sense for New Brunswick because the bird prefers young, degenerated forests.
The monoculture plantations that government policy has allowed to spread across this province have created just the kind of degenerated forests that the Warbler prefers.
Other candidates, Nocera suggested, might be the Boreal Chickadee or Bicknell’s Thrush. Both birds are at risk because of deforestation and the predominance of younger forests. After all, both species require high elevation structures—old, tall trees with holes and cavities and places to roost—for their habitat.
When we turned to talking about birds in the city, Nocera told me about Chimney Swifts.
Nocera took a group of interested people to visit a Chimney Swift roost in Fredericton at the beginning of June, during the opening event of this year’s New Brunswick Festival of Nature.
“Watching chimney swifts enter a roost is a very gratifying thing to watch,” Nocera explained to me before the festival. “They come in a group, and they will sweep by a roof several times, and eventually one will decide to tumble in and when they enter a structure like that, they spill the air from their wings, and they literally tumble. Once one commits, many commit. It’s an aerial display of all these birds tumbling out of the air into the chimney like they’re being vacuumed up.”
Birds in the city are incredible but their habitats in New Brunswick’s forests are being destroyed. It’s time for change.
Christine Jean is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN.