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Tar Sands Killing Thousands of Birds

Migrating birds negatively affected by oil extraction in Canada’s Boreal forest.

Canada Warbler, one of many birds that depend upon the region. Photo: William H. Maloros

Canada Warbler, one of many birds that depend upon the region. Photo: William H. Maloros

By EarthTalk®

Each year tens of millions of migratory birds live in or pass through the Canadian Boreal forest, a vast mostly uninhabited land stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon. It covers 60% of Canada’s area, and serves as a part-time home for more than half of America’s avian population. But environmentalists are worried about the impact increasing “tar sands” oil development there might have on wildlife population.

Tar sands contain a tar-like form of petroleum called bitumen. This is extracted and eventually refined. The extraction process is especially “carbon-intensive,” making it some of the dirtiest fuel around, but its abundance makes it affordable.

A recently released report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) concluded that almost half of the 292 different migratory bird species spend time in Canada’s Boreal forest, and as many as 75 million birds are threatened by future tar sands development. Further, they say, bird losses in the hundreds of thousands have already taken place as a result of overzealous and under-regulated oil development.

“The direct and indirect impacts to birds from tar sands development are immense,” states the report. “Waterfowl and shorebirds land in tailings ponds that they mistake for natural water bodies and become oiled with waste bitumen and toxic elements.” The result can be birds drowning, dying from hypothermia, or being poisoned.

U.S. State Department analysis shows that tar sands oil is 20% more carbon-pollution intensive than conventional oil on a “well-to-wheel” basis. Environmentalists would like to see U.S. lawmakers deny permits for the transport of Canadian Boreal tar sands oil through the U.S. in hopes of making future tar sands projects there too expensive to be worthwhile.

“Saying no to tar sands is a critical pillar in an effective strategy to protect wildlife from carbon pollution,” says the NWF. But it remains to be seen if the Obama administration will allow construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to transport the oil from Canada through the U.S. The welfare of millions of birds and our clean energy future are at stake.

Contacts: NWF,; NRCM,

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine (

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