29 Jan 2020

Protecting the Canada Warbler at both ends of its epic journey

The Canada Warbler migrates more than 10,000 kilometres a year, from Canada and the United States to the forests of South America. Find out how our Colombian Partner is using a local grassroots approach to support an Americas-wide action plan to protect the species.

The Canada Warbler's population is declining © Steve Jones
The Canada Warbler's population is declining © Steve Jones
By Emilia Ulloa

Each year, one of the biggest wonders of the natural world occurs: bird migration. You may be surprised to learn that of the 11,000+ species of birds that exist, one in five is considered migratory. Some of these species make really incredible trips. The Canada Warbler Cardellina canadensis flies more than 10,000 kilometres every year from Canada and the United States to the humid cloud forests of South America, coming to rest across Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and northern Peru.

Eliana Fierro, a biologist at Asociación Calidris (BirdLife in Colombia), explains that the threats facing this tiny voyager are different at each end of its journey: “[At their breeding sites], agrochemicals are harming the insects they feed on. While here in their wintering area, the main problem is deforestation. When these birds arrive in South America, they rely on forests 500 – 2000 meters above sea level. But often they arrive to find that there is no forest anymore.”

Because of its wide distribution, all efforts to protect the Canada Warbler must cross borders. From 2004 – 2017, around 30 organisations from all over the Americas joined forces to develop the Canada Warbler Full Life Cycle Action Plan, bringing together research on threats the species faces in each country. Fierro explains: “The plan first started at the breeding sites, coordinated by Nature Canada and Birdlife. Then we decided to include the wintering grounds, and the construction of the complete cycle action plan for the species began.” As part of this process, Asociación Calidris became the Species Guardian in Colombia.

Their first step focused on raising awareness of the species; not only among birdwatchers, but also among the owners of farms that host the species every year. "We are currently working in the Western Cordillera in two very specific locations: Dapa [in the village of Chicoral] and Villa Carmelo," explains Eliana Fierro. Chicoral village is located at the highest part of the Bitaco district in the municipality of La Cumbre. Whereas Valle del Cauca can be found on the Pacific slope of the Western mountain range.

Local farmers agreed to plant 800 trees on their land © Asociación Calidris

Asociación Calidris staff met with the owners of the two properties and explained what the Canada Warbler is, informing them about their life cycle, their migratory routes and why their lands are so important in conserving the species. Workshops and periodic meetings with the owners followed. "From these meetings, they decided what to do with their properties. They learned about where trees could be planted, how they could improve their lands, and the opportunity to plant ‘living fences’", says Eliana Fierro. In November 2019, both landowners agreed to plant around 800 trees on their farms, creating much-needed habitat for the species.

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Over time, the Canada Warbler has become a firm friend of the landowners that receive it every year. Their epic journeys are an inspiration for the farmers, who now see beyond the bird’s small and shy exterior and understand where it has come from, how long will stay and when it will set off once again on its epic voyage.

“The Canada Warbler is an excellent ‘umbrella species’: protecting it will benefit the rest of the bird community. It seems very incredible to people that such a small bird can travel so much and still get there,” concludes Fierro.

This initiative was supported by Swarovski Optik, the International Forest Service Program of the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Swarovski Optik is the BirdLife Species Champion for the Canada Warbler.