Collecting data on birds can be difficult work. You have to know where to find birds, you have to know what time of year and day to find birds, you have to be able to identify birds, and you need to have knowledge of which birds are significant to an area or threatened. Not to mention the early starts, the long hours, and often remote locations. Manitoba avian researchers and local birding volunteers do all this, and also travel many kilometers every year to collect data. Still, there is a significant gap in what they are able to report.
The most simple and cost-effective way to monitor birds is to enlist the help of volunteer caretakers in different locations across the province. This is exactly what Nature Manitoba’s Important Bird Areas (IBA) program has been doing for six years with the Caretaker Program. But so far this program has mainly been operating in the southern part of the province. Reaching the rest of Manitoba’s IBAs has been a more difficult task.
“Several IBAs have a very strong connection to Indigenous communities. And if you look at a map you can see that Lake St. Martin, for example, is one of the more inaccessible places for us,” says Manitoba IBA Program coordinator, Tim Poole. “So we asked ourselves how we could get people up there monitoring bird populations. Working with northern communities became an apparent way to get into those regions.”
Following the success of partnerships with First Nation communities for the Breeding Bird Atlas project several years ago, Nature Manitoba’s IBA program, along with Bird Studies Manitoba, teamed up with the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER) in 2016. With CIERs guidance, the organizations reached out to First Nation communities throughout the northern part of the province with the goal of expanding the IBA caretaker program to as many northern communities as possible.
“We feel that if you are going to work with First Nations people you should be First Nations led. We already had the history with CIER so we approached the organization to put together a proposal,” says Poole. “We approached Band Council representatives in 19 communities to give them some maps and information about why each area in or near their traditional territory was so important for birds, and how they could get involved. As with any consultation, we only got feedback from some of the bands.”
In October, 2017 the IBA Program delivered its first workshop in Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, which is situated north of the Oak Lake and Plum Lake IBAs. The workshop was given to an adult education group, and a follow up workshop was given in June, 2018 to both a high school group and an adult education group.
“The purpose of these workshops was to introduce people to birds and birding,” says Poole. “We purchased binoculars and showed them how to use scopes and field guides. We actually get them out into the IBA and show them some birds. We record the list of birds throughout the day and then we go back and show them how to record that information through e-Bird.”
But Poole says it’s not only the IBA program that has something to gain from these workshops. For many First Nation communities, Manitoba’s IBAs are natural spaces that provide food, medicine and significant cultural value. Although First Nations are often able to see first-hand the decline of a species, or damage to their traditional land, these observations are sometimes missing the scientific research and hard data required to leverage change at a political level.
“There’s a long-term mutual benefit in programs like this,” Poole says. “It’s going to take time, but down the road we will have more people out there providing data for our program, while giving First Nations the tools to build up capacity in the communities to provide their own monitoring data.”
Poole also says it’s refreshing to see a more culturally-diverse approach to environmental monitoring when working with First Nations.
“When you’re out there counting birds, you don’t realize sometimes how significant some of these birds are to Indigenous communities,” he says. “In Sioux Valley, an Elder shared the Lakota names and traditional knowledge of the birds that we had seen. So our program was giving the scientific information about the birds, while the Elder was able to connect things back to the culture in a more holistic way.”
But Poole also recognizes that this kind of partnership will require a long-term, sustained effort.
“It’s something we’re going to have to keep working at. You can’t build these partnerships with a one-off event.”
The long-term goal of the program is to get First Nations engaged as stewards. He says First Nation communities already have a strong attachment to nature, and he believes working with CIER will get more First Nations involved in citizen science, and will hopefully strengthen their attachment to these areas.
“Right now the birding community is not representative of our diverse society,” Poole says. “That needs to change. And in Manitoba, especially in northern Manitoba, a key to that is First Nation communities.”