Shorebirds are declining: How it involves Sackville and why we need to focus our conservation efforts here

Sackville is a waterfowl-centric sort of town. From Ducky’s to The Pond, to street art and even the town’s benches (look at the arm rests), you could say life here is for the birds. Along with this, waterfowl hunting is a long held cultural practice across the Maritimes. 

Now, when most people think of waterfowl hunting, they typically think of shooting ducks and geese, but shorebird hunting is also extremely common in parts of the world like the Caribbean and South America. Shorebirds, abundant in these areas, are typically long distance migrants that breed in Arctic regions and overwinter in the lower latitudes until they return to the Arctic again. Unfortunately, shorebird populations are declining at a steady rate, and research indicates that climate change, urbanization of shorelines, and overexploitation are some of the main culprits. 

Dr. Eric Reed and colleagues with Canadian Wildlife Services, Environment Climate Change Canada, and the University of the West Indies set out to determine the breeding origins of juvenile birds harvested in ‘shooting swamps’ of Barbados. Using tissue samples from feathers and analysing them for chemical signatures, known as stable isotopes, they were able to determine that birds like Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, American Golden Plover and Stilt Sandpipers were mainly arriving in Barbados from eastern Canada. 

This research initiated a series of important conversations about sustainable harvest of shorebirds. “The project drew a lot of interest and helped bring together partners from all of the Caribbean Basin to discuss the harvest and conservation of shorebirds at the regional scale,” says Reed. Following the study, conservation workshops were held with representatives from Canada, the United States, Jamaica, Barbados, France, and French Guiana, as well as shorebird hunters from the French Territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Reed explains that these “partners are still working together to better quantify the harvest in the Caribbean Basin, as well as to try to mitigate the impacts of the harvest on species.” 

We know these populations are declining, and now we know where they come from and where they go, which is a critical first step toward finding solid management solutions.

Gianco Angelozzi-Blanco, a Venezuelan Master’s of Science student at Mt. A studying shorebird ecology, explains that “hunting is part of their culture, and that’s fine… many migratory species stop there to winter and most of them, if not all, are declining.” However, Angelozzi-Blanco explains how “important [it is] to know the breeding origins, because declines are not generally even throughout their breeding range; for example, [these] eastern breeders are more likely to be hunted than central or western populations.” 

Reed confirms that for the Short-billed Dowitcher, a species you can find in Sackville’s retention pond, most of the harvested animals from the shooting swamps are comprised of the eastern populations, “so the implications are that even moderate levels of harvest could be detrimental [to this group].” Understanding that eastern breeding shorebirds are at a higher risk for overexploitation can encourage shorebird conservation initiatives to focus on eastern populations. 

Bird biologist and Mt. A alumna Hilary Mann, now with Acadia University, says that “if we want to continue to share our town with these birds, we need to alleviate the threat of overharvesting on wintering grounds.” She fears that without proper hunting management in these countries, “we are going to lose these breeding populations.” Her fears are echoed by Angelozzi-Blanco: “The [current] harvest is just non-sustainable.” 

“We need to be smart with how animals are harvested, while keeping in mind that it is part of Barbadian culture,” says Mann. Globally, there is still much work that needs to be done to lessen the impacts of harvest on shorebird species. Although there are partnerships focused on the hunting management and conservation of migratory shorebirds in Barbados, we are continuing to see a decline in populations. If we want to continue to see shorebirds inhabit the retention pond and waterfowl park here in Sackville, it is crucial that we see a serious push towards their conservation. 

To learn more, please check out:  Shorebird hunting in Barbados: Using stable isotopes to link the harvest at a migratory stopover site with sources of production. by E. T. Reed.

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