V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Flight of the birds

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, October, 2007.

When he learned the mechanics of spelling, Malkolm Boothroyd changed the spelling of his first name to try and "stand out."

Though the 15-year-old's legal name is spelled with a 'c' he dropped in a 'k' and parted with convention from that moment on.

"I'm usually the odd person out," he says in a phone interview from Arizona. "I've always been the odd person out since I was in Grade 2."

That's because by then the Yukon boy had discovered the passion that would later take him on a year-long odyssey and log him 16,000 km: Birding.

Boothroyd and his parents are participating in the Big Year, a competition among North American birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of birds within a year. The current record setter for the Big Year jetset across North America and logged enough miles to fly to the moon.

"I was inspired to do it differently," Boothroyd said.

Instead of flying, he and his parents are cycling to make the project fossil-fuel free. They left their Yukon home in June, cycled along the Alaska highway, down the west coast of California and will end their journey in Florida.

But the fate of his favourite animal weighs heavily on this teen's conscience.

"I'm scared and worried about what's going to happen," he said. "I can't imagine (some) species surviving."

Other bird ecologists share Boothroyd's concerns.

"Birds are very good indicators of climate change because they respond quickly to changes in temperature," said Mara Kerry, an ecologist and director of conservation for Nature Canada.

Birds pick up their cues from light patterns, winds, and changing seasons, said Ted Cheskey, a bird ecologist with Nature Canada.

"There are concerns that may affect the synchronicity of breeding and peak food periods," he said.

Long-distance migrants like the wood warbler, for example, don't know enough to come home earlier and have been returning north from their sojourns in the south to find their spring food sources on breeding grounds -- such as caterpillars -- are already gone.

Birds are also delaying their autumn departures.

Meanwhile, some warbler species have expanded their range northward by an average of 105 km over the past 24 years.

Birds with specialized habitats also face an uphill battle, Cheskey said.

For example, ivory gulls which forage on Arctic sea ice have declined in number by 90 per cent during the past two decades. Sea ice is melting at unprecedented rates in the Arctic and some climate models project it will shrink 40% by 2050.

Likewise in the Arctic, the nesting diets of thick-billed murres changed dramatically between 1980 and 2001, according to Environment Canada. While Arctic cod was once the primary foods for murre chicks, capelin and sandlance now make up a much larger part of their diet. Cod relies on ice cover for foraging and to escape predation.

Warmer temperatures in the northern Hudson Bay have also led to a four-fold increase in the loss of murre eggs.

Mosquitoes are emerging earlier in the season, scientists say, and are literally sucking the life-blood out of incubating birds. Some are dying and others are abandoning their eggs in uncharacteristic behaviour.

Increased forest fires and insect populations are predicted for Canada's boreal forest -- where three billion birds breed every year. Should warblers decline, pest outbreaks could become more frequent as these birds dine on insects like the spruce budworm. And while a part of the natural cycle of the spruce-fir forests, without predators to regulate their growth they could become uncontrollable.

Warming temperatures would also dry out boreal wetlands, valuable habitats for waterbird species like the northern pintail, which has been on the decline.

Climate change is exacerbating other bird pressures such as land development, pollution, and deforestation, Cheskey said.

"The overarching message is birds are canaries in a coal mine," Kerry added. "We should be paying attention to what's happening to birds because it's an indicator of what's happening right now."

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  • On his birding adventure year Malkolm is also trying to raise $10,000 to give to a bird conservation program.
  • He has raised $2,450 to date.
  • He's also seen 334 birds and his goal is to see 500 by year's end.
  • He squished three years' worth of studies into two years in order to take this trip.
  • To follow Malkolm on his birding odyssey, visit birdyear.com (see link).

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