One of the biggest animal migrations on earth is the arrival of billions of birds at the boreal forest in northern Canada. This luscious zone of mixed vegetation accounts for almost 60 per cent of the country’s land mass, reaching all the way from the Yukon and northern British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador. The region is dominated by many species of trees but also includes wetlands and lakes. This pristine habitat hosts 325 species of birds each summer which rely on this forest as the place they reproduce.
This special forest plays an additional role by purifying air and water, storing carbon and regulating the climate. If the Canadian boreal forest disappeared, it would affect air quality and temperatures across the entire planet. It is the largest intact forest on earth and has nearly three million square kilometres of land that has not been touched by the construction of roads or development. There are three subzones:
The northern boreal woodland. This area has natural, widely spaced coniferous trees that allow the sun to shine through, enabling low-growing shrubs and lichens to thrive.
The main boreal forest. Here we have closely spaced evergreen and deciduous trees that co-exist with shade-loving shrubs, herbs and carpets of feather moss – also referred to as boreal forest moss – that cover the forest floor.
The southern boreal forest. This part of the region is filled with a variety of plants and even more trees, like black and white spruce, jack and lodge-pole pine, balsam fir, paper birch, trembling aspen, American larch and balsam poplar.
This diverse habitat is home to many mammals like moose, caribou, black bear, wolf and beaver. The variety of birds is plentiful, from the many birds resembling the Canada goose and common loon to many species of hawks, owls and ducks, to the precious songbirds.
The migration some of these tiny birds make from South America to the boreal forest is astounding and almost mysterious. The blackpoll warbler, for example, has the weight of a typical ballpoint pen and flies 4,000 kms to the forest and once again back to South America. In fact, 2,500 kms of this journey is a non-stop over-water flight, the longest flight on record for migratory songbirds.
It is estimated that two billion migratory landbirds, seven million shorebirds and 26 million ducks head to the boreal forest for nesting each spring. Many of the birds here are insectivores and play a huge role in natural pest control. The forest owns a quarter of the world’s wetlands, offering 200 million acres of fresh water, the largest unfrozen, pristine body of water on earth, which 75 per cent of North American waterfowl breed in.
The boreal forest is a hot topic with environmentalists, conservationists and scientists from across the planet. In their world, this forest is referred to as the “lungs of the earth”. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are speeding up climate change. The boreal forest stores twice as much carbon as tropical rainforests worldwide. The Canadian boreal forest stores 208 billion tonnes of carbon, which is equivalent to 1,000 years’ worth of emissions based on 2014 levels.
The forest has the ability to store carbon in trees, peat and soil. Keeping the carbon locked in plant matter is one of the most crucial elements in the fight against climate change.
The southern boreal boundary is experiencing significant habitat loss due to land conversion for agriculture, forestry and oil and gas development. Each individual species of bird has its own habitat requirements for both nesting and feeding. Most require huge areas of unbroken forest and will not cross even the narrowest lumber roads.
The situation is the same for many other animals, such as the caribou. Even though reforestation is a requirement whenever logging is carried out, the re-planting of trees will never bring the boreal floor back to its original life once it has been damaged and exposed to the sun. Nothing of the magical Canadian boreal forest could ever be created by man.
Only 10 per cent of the forest is currently protected, so 23 scientists from around the globe are pressing hard to have action taken to protect Canada’s boreal forest due to its impact on the entire planet.
As we commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary, we should be remembering with pride this grand gift nature has bestowed on our country. Please consider joining or supporting the organizations named here to have your voice heard on protecting and saving this magical forest we can call our own: wcscanada.org; natureconservancy.ca and borealbirds.org.
Sherrie Versluis owns and operates The Preferred Perch on St. Mary’s Road in St. Vital; phone 257-3724.