Waterbirds: the bellwethers of a healthy watershed

Watershed Wanderings column

By Thea Rodgers

Lake Windermere Ambassadors

What is a bellwether, you ask? A bellwether is another term for an indicator or predictor of something.

Roger Tory Peterson, an American naturalist and ornithologist, referred to birds as a kind of “ecological litmus paper” because of their quick response to changes in landscape and habitat conditions.

Ecosystem changes – especially those to do with water quality or pollution – are normally monitored using scientific instruments and chemical analyses. But in some cases, simply the abundance and behaviour of birds can be used as an indicator for certain environmental conditions within a watershed.

Here in the Columbia headwaters region, waterbirds are one example of an indicator species for watershed health because of their high sensitivity to habitat quality and pollution. Water quality, water level fluctuations, and the abundance of fish, insects and vegetation can all affect food and habitat quality, which in turn influences the local abundance of resident and migratory waterbirds.

A healthy watershed has enough resources to support healthy, stable bird populations, but human development, recreation, land use changes, and pollution can all impact our water quality and cause sharp declines in bird numbers if not managed responsibly.

Besides just acting as an indicator for good habitat quality, waterbirds also play a vital role in contributing to a healthy watershed by cycling nutrients through the food chain, moving and carrying seeds of plants, and helping control pests (like mosquitoes)! Without waterbirds, our watershed would be missing an important piece of the ecological puzzle!

In our area, we’re lucky to have clean water and some protections in place to preserve critical wetland and riparian habitat, which helps maintain a productive and healthy watershed. But we can always be proactive to keep our waterways clean and resilient, both now and for the future!

How can you help care for our waterbirds and keep our watershed flowing healthy?

• Avoid using lawn chemicals or pesticides, which are toxic to birds and wildlife.

• Learn to identify local bird species and share your knowledge with friends and family.

• Avoid venturing into marshes and sloughs of the wetlands – even in non-motorized paddle boats – during critical nesting season (April – June).

• Volunteer with the Columbia Wetlands Waterbird Survey (CWWS) to help count waterbirds in our local area and help monitor their behaviour over time.

• Volunteer with the Lake Windermere Ambassadors this summer to help monitor water quality and tally our waterbird sightings! Email info@lakeambassadors.ca to sign up.

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