Halifax is certainly a thriving habitat for European starlings — those annoying speckled black birds that call in long shrill sequences, disturbing my peaceful time reading on the rooftop terrace of the Halifax Central Library.
But what about all the other birds?
Amy Mui from the department of earth and environmental sciences at Dalhousie University is confident that once people are familiar with common birds such as starlings, “the more rare species start to pop up” and become obvious to bird-watchers.
“That’s where the fun and the thrill come in.”
With spring around the corner, migrating species are fluffing up their wings, getting ready to fly back to the shores of Nova Scotia. It’s a perfect time to encourage education about the province’s birds.
Join the bird coalition
The Bird Friendly Halifax coalition, supported by Nature Nova Scotia, is calling Haligonians to vote for one of their five candidates for city bird on their website by Mar. 31. Nominees include black-capped chickadee, northern cardinal, Canada warbler, and Atlantic puffin. This initiative follows the 2022 success of Halifax being declared an entry-level bird-friendly city — the first in Atlantic Canada.
All birds, even the annoying starlings, have an interesting story. The millions of starlings in North America trace their origins to a group of 100 birds released in Central Park in the early 1890s. All this was because Shakespeare enthusiasts were inspired by the mention of starlings in Henry IV, and wanted to spread that joy to America. Is it truly a joy though?
“[Starlings],” says Mui, “outcompete our native songbirds for nesting spaces and resources.”
For people wanting to help, she suggests putting up specialized nest boxes for specific native species that are inaccessible to the snarky starlings.
How about the warbler?
The Canada warbler stands out to me on the list of bird candidates. It is the only one that I had never heard of before, likely because it is endangered.
A tiny yellow bird with slate gray wings and a fashionable necklace of black markings, the Canada warbler prefers to hide in the forest or the swamp rather than brave the city streets. As an introvert, I can relate.
Luckily, one thing Halifax has going for itself is its strong urban tree cover compared to other major cities. With trees along its curbs, Point Pleasant Park, the public gardens and many wilderness areas close to the city, it provides ample habitat for birds like the Canada warbler.
Mui thinks we can do better.
“Following the same patterns [of other] bigger cities, we will eventually lose that green belt if we’re not careful about where we start to develop,” she says.
Save the green spaces and coastlines
The Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area is a crucial green space in Halifax that is threatened by development. In its entirety, this area is comparable to the size of the Halifax Peninsula. With limited municipal and provincial funding to buy land, private lands at the edges of the Wilderness area are at risk of being sold to developers.
As well as protecting our forests and wetlands, we also need to pay attention to coastlines.
One of my first memories of moving to Nova Scotia from Ontario was discovering semipalmated plovers and sandpipers.
A cloud of chirping little birds swooped and spun in the air as if dancing then landed on the mudflat, in the hundreds. The plovers sport little black necklaces and the sandpipers are covered in brown speckles.
They come every year in late summer to forage for crabs on the coasts of Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States. We are a pit stop on their journey from the Arctic tundra to Central and South America.
Piping plovers, a relative of the semipalmated plover, did not make it onto the list of candidates but are still an important bird to know about, according to Mui.
According to a 2021 report by Saltwire, there were 50 known breeding pairs left in Nova Scotia that year. In 2020 there were only 45. The number this year could go either way.
Mui says that even seemingly innocent actions like walking dogs can disturb the plovers.
“[This is] why awareness is so important because [many] people aren’t aware that [the] beach they’re walking on is [a] nesting habitat for an endangered species.”
The whole campaign of choosing a city bird is all about awareness.
Let’s get educated about birds
The iconic Atlantic puffin is described by Bird Friendly Halifax coalition founder, Becky Parker, as having a charming “crash and tumble nature”. Whether you choose the puffin, the Canada warbler, or any of the other candidates, getting involved teaches us more about the birds that define Nova Scotia and which ones need our protection.
Mui’s students have researched the mortality causes of native birds, such as window collisions and house cats.
The awareness that this research created helped Halifax become an entry-level bird-friendly city. Along with applying this research to make real change, community engagement is another crucial next step toward making Halifax more bird-friendly.
Mui thinks of Jane Goodall, who said wisely “[that] people will only protect what they love.”
She looks forward to hanging a flag of the new city bird in a city hall window. I hope the birds flying by will see the flag and know they are appreciated.