UBC researchers are fighting to keep a rare bird in Canada, sewing tiny trackers onto their tail feathers to map their movements. Knowing the threatened birds’ flight patterns and where they eat will help them better understand how to protect their habitat from tree cutting in southern B.C.
Nestled high in the remote mountainside trees of southern British Columbia, a rare bird is disappearing.
Habitat loss threatens the home of the Williamson’s sapsucker, a migratory woodpecker commonly found in the western United States. The male is black and white with a red throat and yellow belly, colours more often seen on tropical birds. The female is much less showy in brown, with black and white streaks. Its presence in Canada is exclusive to the Kootenay and Okanagan regions, and Nicola Valley, in southern B.C.
Kathy Martin and Julien St-Amand, researchers from the University of British Columbia, are fighting to keep the bird in Canada. The bird is listed as endangered in B.C., and it’s estimated it could disappear completely by 2025. The UBC research is among the first dedicated studies of the bird since 1975.
“We suspect their habitat loss is due to commercial and non-commercial tree cutting,” said St-Amand, a graduate student in the department of forest and conservation sciences, whose work is supervised by professor Martin. “Knowing exactly what the birds need for foraging can help us better protect them.”
To do this, St-Amand spent three months in the mountains, studying the bird. With a net and a fake bird he made from electrical tape and foam to act as a would-be intruder, St-Amand caught 29 birds. He sewed tiny radio transmitters onto their tail feathers before releasing them.
The transmitters allowed St-Amand to track how far the birds would fly from their nests to get food (mostly ants), and what trees they used most frequently to feed from. The birds’ tail feathers would fall off, transmitter included, before they migrated south at the end of the summer.
Although the bird can adapt to living in disturbed landscapes, where clear-cutting takes place, the information St-Amand collects will help maintain the quality and size of their habitat when forestry companies plan cuts around them.
Research led by Martin has already revealed the birds are attracted to western larch and ponderosa pine trees for nesting, while St-Amand’s work specifically focuses on their foraging needs. One of his early findings has been that the birds prefer feeding on large Douglas fir trees to others.
“The idea is to identify what trees, in their height, size and degradation, are the ones that have a higher importance to retain, and not cut,” said St-Amand, whose field research on the bird is part of his thesis work.
The research comes at a time when there are just over 400 pairs of the bird left in B.C. If the birds disappear completely, they’ll be considered extirpated, the category that would see the species extinct in Canada.
Martin said protecting the birds’ habitat in B.C. could prove crucial in the future as climate change pushes all kinds of birds farther north.
“Our sites here will prove to be an even more important home for this species to thrive in the future, should the southern end of their range dry up,” she said.