Gods’ Footprints

Trampling Alberta’s warblers.

By Kevin Van Tighem

If you could hold a black-throated green warbler in your hand, it would be soft to the touch and strangely light. Barely as long as an avocado, the slender greenish bird with a black neck and brilliant yellow face staring up at you would weigh less than two nickels. Just feathers, hollow bones, some muscle and a fierce little heart.

Its dark eyes would watch you with a bright, intense gaze. The little bird’s heart would be racing because it would likely feel that it had been caught by a predator. It might be more apt, if warblers could formulate that concept (and who knows—perhaps they can), for it to believe that it was looking into the face of a god.

Gods, after all, have the power to create and destroy. And we humans are capable of both. A recently released report by the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) profiles the black-throated green warbler as a species whose numbers have lately dropped by one-fifth because of our powers of destruction.

Fortunately for Alberta’s warblers, the chances are almost nil that you will ever get to hold one in your hand and feel, in its nearly weightless fragility, the awful power and responsibility of a god. But perhaps that’s actually too bad, considering the harm we lesser gods are capable of.

Not only might you never hold one, you may never see one either. Black-throated green warblers sing, forage and raise their young in old boreal forests—the kind that loggers describe as “over-mature”—and eat spruce budworms and other insects in the most ancient conifers. They flit and scurry far overhead, obscured by the interlocking branches of the canopy. You might never even hear one. In the green, living stillness of the northern forest, the black-throated green is among the birds with the softest of voices: a short series of high-pitched notes.

One-fifth of the habitat once available to warblers is gone. Re-planted trees will be cut again before they grow old enough for the birds to use.

So we live in our Alberta and they live in theirs. In summer that is; in winter they can be found foraging for food in the forests of Central America and Mexico. Late in March, having fattened for the spring migration, the birds become restless with an avian version of homesickness. Those little hearts propel those tiny bodies across Mexico, the whole length of the continental US and into southern Canada. They arrive in Alberta in late May just in time for the first big eruption of boreal insect life. High in the treetops, flashes of living colour amid the dark canopy, the warblers build nests, lay eggs and raise young.

But sometimes when they finally arrive home, it isn’t there anymore. Boreal forests are constantly renewed by wildfires, so to some extent the birds are used to finding last year’s forest gone. They simply search for another stand of trees more than a century old. That search, however, becomes increasingly difficult as logging companies continue cutting down forests that will never be allowed to grow ancient again.

The ABMI’s study, “Status of Human Footprint in Alberta,” used a number of data sources to measure how much of our province has become unusable to nature because it has been developed for our use—the “human footprint.” The human footprint in Alberta’s boreal forest region increased from 15 per cent to more than 18 per cent in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, with most of that owing to forestry.

Almost one-fifth of the habitat once available to black-throated green warblers is now gone. The replanted trees will be cut again before they grow old enough for the birds to use.

It’s even worse for other wildlife elsewhere in Alberta. Almost 30 per cent of the province is now lost under our human footprint: little more than two-thirds of the province is available to nature. In some regions it’s even worse: 78 per cent of the parkland region has been appropriated for human use and almost 60 per cent of the grassland region, mostly because we’ve plowed the land under for agriculture. While boreal Alberta still has its black-throated green warblers, most prairie birds are now classified as threatened or endangered. Some, like the burrowing owl, are almost extinct.

With such big footprints, isn’t it time we start treading more gently?

The ABMI study is only the latest in a series of reports showing the impact of rampant development and thoughtless self-absorption. We might argue that this is our Alberta and we can do as we like. Those tiny birds, however, could rightly respond that this is also their Alberta and they never chose us as their gods. We did that. But those who assume godlike powers have responsibilities too, not the least of which is to care about Creation—and to care for it. We might never hold a black-throated green warbler in our hands, but we hold its fate there.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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