VANCOUVER - The world's birds are literally the canaries in the coal mine and their ongoing decline should serve as a warning signal of a global environment in peril, says an international report on the state of the world's birds.
Globally, one in eight species — 1,313 — are considered at threat of extinction, said the report by U.K.-based BirdLife International. Of these, 200 are considered on the brink.
Nature is a crucial part of Earth's life support system, said Leon Bennun, the group's director of science, policy and information, and the numbers don't bode well.
"Birds are a great window into nature. They're a wonderful indicator of the wider environment," Bennun said.
"Our assessment, unfortunately, shows us that birds are in decline, an indicator that nature itself is not in good shape."
In Canada, progress has been made in reversing the decline of several species, but the report released Thursday said even in this country, more bird species are in decline than are increasing.
"By and large Canada is faring probably better than many other countries," said Jon McCracken, of the conservation group Bird Studies Canada, a contributor to the report.
Although Canada's bird population has dropped about 12 per cent since 1970, waterfowl and birds of prey have seen dramatic recovery, thanks to conservation efforts that included wetland protection and the banning of the pesticide DDT. And there are positive signs in the recovery of the endangered whooping crane, due largely to conservation efforts.
But the report, State of the World's Birds, noted dramatic declines in grassland birds such as killdeers and meadowlarks, Arctic shorebirds and so-called aerial insectivores like swallows and martens.
And there are a small number of species that may have reached a point of no return.
"There are some species that are so critically threatened that it's almost a foregone conclusion that we're going to lose them, despite our best investment of time and money," McCracken said in an interview from Port Rowan, Ont.
The Eskimo curlew, a migratory tundra species hunted into oblivion, hasn't been seen in the wild for 49 years. Once that clock hits 50 years, the bird will be declared extinct.
Few species remain north of the 49th year-round, and on a global scale the situation is worse.
Habitat destruction and degradation, largely related to agriculture, and the effects of invasive species are primarily to blame, said the report that gathered research from scientists and citizens around the world.
In Europe, it said, 40 per cent of farmland species have declined over the past three decades, and in Asia, more than half of all waterbird species.
Pacific species and ocean-going seabirds are experiencing the fastest decline, because of fisheries bycatch and the effects of alien invasive species.
The report identifies more than 12,000 important bird and biodiversity areas that are key to improving the outlook.
The cost of their protection and effective management would be US$58 billion a year. When the cost of conserving all wildlife groups is included, the price tag rises to US$80 billion a year, the report said.
"These numbers sound very large, and they're more than an order of magnitude of the sums that are currently spent on conservation," said Stuart Butchart, head of science at Birdlife International, one of the world's largest conservation coalitions, involving 7,000 local groups.
But compared to the dividends of a healthy environment, from the food we eat to global climate regulation, they are very affordable, he said.
"For example, people spend more than six times as much on soft drinks each year around the world."
Yet thousands of the bird and biodiversity areas identified lack the legal protection necessary, the report said.
There are three such areas under pressure in Canada, said Ted Cheskey, bird conservation manager for Nature Canada.
Boundary Bay, in the Fraser River delta of British Columbia, is home to a range of species and a couple million western sandpipers. It is also a major shipping port with an expansion in the works.
In Ontario, the Prince Edward County South Shore is key coastal habitat where proposed wind energy projects pose the biggest threat to area birds.
And oil and gas exploration in the Arctic threatens birds in the Mackenzie River delta, where it meets the Beaufort Sea. The federal government has issued exploration licenses, and exploration activity could commence next year, according to a Senate committee.
And around the world, there's growing concern about a new generation of pesticides using neonicotinoid insecticides that are killing bees, and could pose a threat to birds.
The numbers are a wake-up call, McCracken said.
"There is a cascading effect and sooner or later you're going to pay for it. If the canary dies, you might not be too far behind."