Bird Trouble

The Migratory Bird Convention Act (MBCA) is a fine piece of legislation, stipulating in no uncertain terms than an exhaustive list of our native birds – chiefly those who come and go with the seasons – cannot be legally killed, nor their nests lawfully destroyed. It’s an emblem of protection for those species who face enough danger on their epic annual migration, more or less ensuring their safety within our borders. Yes, permits do exist for the killing of some listed birds, but these are typically for hunting waterfowl, and are never granted to industrial undertakings such as forestry.

The problem is that this Act has suffered chronic, even brazen unenforcement since it was established. Clearcutting any forest, for example, from April until August, more or less guarantees the killing of listed birds and the destruction of their nests, and yet clearcutting is the default harvest prescription from coast to coast, certainly in Nova Scotia, where forestry reform has been a ceaseless clash of hard truths and easy nonsense. We do not screen for these birds before a clearcut, which has allowed government and industry both to hide behind a wall of orchestrated ignorance, blissfully unaware of the protected species they’re devastating.

Thus, we have been illegally killing birds at such a scale as to render the MBCA comical, a tombstone on which we’ve scribbled a cruel joke. It’s the responsibility of our federal government to uphold this particular Act, to shut down clearcuts on behalf of nesting birds and prosecute violations, but in the history of the Act, the destruction of a nest has never once been prosecuted.

Our provincial government has, of course, been made aware of this cognitive dissonance, by members of the People for Ecological Forestry in Southwest Nova Scotia, a band of locals assembled in response to the rampant deforestation of their region. Only recently they made note of the absurdities at play with the MBCA, pointing specifically to one 387 acre forest slated for clearcutting near Allendale and saying with near certainty that listed species nest within. The response from our Department of Lands and Forestry has been consistent – prove it. The aforementioned wall of ignorance went up, as the burden of truth was lain on the people trying to protect these forests, rather than those intent on tearing them down, in this case WestFor Management.

“It’s a critical time for our planet, our environment and our forests. I think and feel that people have had enough.”

So said Shelly Hipson, a member of the People for Ecological Forestry in Southwest Nova Scotia who took part in an organized birding expedition into the Allendale forest on the chopping block. With the benefit of experienced birders and photographers they were able to identify 31 species of bird in this forest, 25 of whom are listed under the MBCA. There was ample evidence of nesting.

Their findings were compelling, but these fine folks weren’t satisfied with a spiritual victory. In short order they contacted the environmental law charity Ecojustice, asking staff lawyers to compile their findings in a neat little package, outlining the blatant violation this approved clearcut would represent, and then sent that package to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Department of Lands and Forestry and the Canadian Wildlife Service. In this fashion, a dynamite gang of locals did the government’s job for them.

When I called Ecojustice at their Halifax office I asked lawyer Sarah McDonald if citizen science like this, which has grown enormously in recent years, was going to change the game so far as holding government to account, and her response was measured. While she finds the movement as exciting as I do, she’s only too aware of government’s willingness to dismiss the groundwork of its citizens, either as improperly executed or amateurish, without then doing the work themselves.

I’m curious to see what our leadership will do here. Will they ignore this call for justice and proceed on their own timetable, admitting in the process to their disinterest in upholding environmental law, or will they spare this forest until fall, when the birds are gone and the Act cannot touch them, feasting on unsurveyed forests in the meantime? This last seems most likely, but then, it also seems likely that citizen scientist will follow them. It’s guerrilla warfare, one of the few options left to members of the concerned public.

We are facing a pandemic of clearcutting in Nova Scotia, which is devastating not only our migratory birds but biodiversity at large, and as more people become exhausted with that fact the size and creativity of the opposition will grow. The Migratory Bird Convention Act is only the most recent tool brought to bear in the defence of our natural heritage. It just shouldn’t be this hard to protect one’s home.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with The Pictou Advocate.

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