15.8 Trends in bird populations

Last Updated: 
June 10, 2015

This indicator tracks population changes for NWT bird species covered by the surveys noted below.

The two major biomes of the NWT, the tundra and the taiga-boreal forest, harbor 283 species of birds. The vast majority migrate outside the NWT in winter; only about 6% of bird species remain in the NWT year-round. 

now Bunting - Photo courtesy John Nagy
now Bunting - Photo courtesy John Nagy

The information for this indicator is obtained, with permission, from the report "The State of Canada's Birds, 2012"1 where trend analyses for each of Canada's large physiographic region and for different groups of birds are presented. This updated information replaces the data used previously in 2011 for this indicator.

The data used in the report are from the Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) and Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS), mostly in southern Canada and the US. Other sources include surveys of song birds in the Dehcho, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's waterfowl aerial surveys, shorebird surveys in the Arctic (PRISM program) and COSEWIC reports. See the technical note below for more information on bird monitoring programs.

NWT Focus 

Birds have important roles in ecosystems. Ducks, geese, grouse, and ptarmigans are essential food sources for many northern families – waterfowl hunting is part of people’s traditional link to the land and many families will travel seasonally to good bird hunting areas every year. Hunters track the numbers and health of these resources closely. Songbirds, shorebirds, and woodpeckers are key components of NWT ecosystems, as they are major predators of insects, including insect pest species; they contribute to plant seed dispersal, they are prey to other species, and in the case of woodpeckers, provide homes for other species. 

Falcons, eagles, owls, and other raptors, are top predators. Monitoring populations of top predators offers insights into the health of ecosystems, as they are susceptible to pollutants and to changes in the populations of their prey. Monitoring the status of fishing-eating birds (e.g. loons, pelicans) and of marine birds (e.g. sea ducks) is helping us understand changes in aquatic and marine ecosystems. 

Current view: status and trend 

Some migratory birds, although still commonly seen in the NWT every summer, have shown significant population declines in Canada2. Most of these species have declined by more than half the numbers seen in the 1960s-70s. The reasons for these declines are still unclear, but because these trends are similar across each species’ range, the major threats are thought to be widespread. Potential threats across the country are being investigated and include pollution, habitat loss, over-harvesting, insect controls leading to declines insect populations, and climate change. Little is known of main threats to bird populations in the NWT. 

Overall trends in all regions in Canada, by bird group.
Overall trends in all regions in Canada, by bird group.

"Aerial insectivores  birds that catch insects in flight  are declining more steeply than any other groups of birds."

"... shorebird species have declined by almost 50%."

"Increasing waterfowl populations reflect successful management of hunting and wetlands."

"Increasing raptor populations point to the success of direct intervention."

Quotes from "The State of Canada's Birds, 20121.

Not all migratory species are declining, but many species are, and there is growing concern that may be indicative of widespread changes in our ecosystems. For example, there is evidence that most shorebirds nesting in the Arctic are declining3, some shorebirds in the taiga/boreal forest are also declining4, and many boreal bird species that specialize in aerial feeding on insects are also declining5,6. Further studies are needed to determine the main reasons for these losses in population numbers.

Some species have increased in numbers in the past few decades. For example, the number of lesser snow geese nesting in the western Canadian Arctic (mostly on Banks Island)7 has more than doubled since the 1970s, probably due to increased availability of winter food as a result of changes in agricultural practices7. The peregrine falcon also has increased in numbers after contaminant levels were reduced, increasing their nesting success. See SPECIES AT RISK focal point.

Western boreal region

Looking forward 

A collaborative approach is essential to understand why some migratory birds are declining across North America, so that threats can be reduced and populations can recover from their long-term declines. Management and conservation strategies, such as the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, are being implemented by agencies responsible for the management of birds in the NWT, Canada, as well as in the US and Mexico. 

Bird map

Find Out More

Other focal points

Technical Notes 

  • The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) tracks species on their breeding grounds. There are only five survey sites in the NWT. The NWT/Nunavut Bird Checklist is tracking sightings of birds to help increase our knowledge of the distribution, abundance and breeding status of birds in NWT’s ecosystems. Some NWT birds migrating further south to the US, Mexico and central-south America, are monitored by the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network at a few stations in Canada, the US, and elsewhere. 
  • The Christmas Bird Count (CBC), a monitoring program over 100 years old, collects data on birds at their wintering sites across North America. So far there are only six sites in the NWT and trends in ptarmigans, ravens and other species that stay in the NWT for the winter can be tracked using this volunteer program. As most NWT birds migrate south for winter, the population trends of these species are determined from data collected at CBC sites in southern Canada and the United States. The BBS and CBC programs are administered in Canada by Birds Studies Canada and provide the majority of data to determine population trends on most small birds nesting in the NWT. To learn more on how these programs are used to help bird monitoring in the NWT, consult the Northern Landbird Program Strategy and Action Plan (2002). 
  • Ducks and geese are monitored on their breeding grounds using annual aerial and photo surveys performed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They use the data to track the status of waterfowl and help review hunting regulations every season. Waterfowl surveys are part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. 
  • Some monitoring programs have been designed to collect data on some species of birds requiring special attention in the NWT and elsewhere. The status of NWT shorebirds is tracked by the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) as part the Shorebird Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2006). Monitoring of raptor nesting sites in the NWT is done using the NWT-NU Raptor Database. Peregrine Falcons are monitored every five years in two study areas in the NWT as part of the North American Peregrine Falcon Surveys. 

Raw data from the Christmas Bird Court

The previous information used for this indicator in 2011 has been archived and is available upon request at NWTSOER@gov.nt.ca.


Ref. 1. North American Bird Conservation Initiative Canada. 2012. The State of Canada's Birds, 2012. Environment Canada. Ottawa, ON.

Ref. 2. Federal, Provincial and Territorial Governments. 2010. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010. Canadian Councils of Resources Ministers. Ottawa, ON.

Ref. 3.  Northern Conservation Division. 2006. Shorebird Conservation Strategy and Action Plan, Prairie and Northern Region. Environment Canada.

Ref. 4. Rausch, J. and V. Johnston. 2009. Trends in Canadian Shorebirds: Trends for Boreal Shield, Boreal Plains, Boreal Cordillera, Taiga Shield, Taiga Plains and Taiga Cordillera EcozonesPlus. Technical report produced for the Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010

Ref. 5. BirdLife International. 2008. Common Insect-eating Birds Suffer Dramatic Declines. Bird Studies Canada.

Ref. 6. Blancher, P. 2003. The Importance of Canada's Boreal Forest to Landbirds. Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

Ref. 7. Canadian Wildlife Service Waterfowl Committee. 2008. Population Status of Migratory Game Birds in Canada (and Regulation Proposals for Oberabundant Species). November 2008. Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada. Ottawa, ON.

Ref. 8. Machtans, C.S., K.J. Kardynal, and P.A. Smith. 2014. https://www.ace-eco.org/vol9/iss1/art5/ Avian Conservation and Ecology 9(1):5.