Now that the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory is monitoring breeding songbirds, we want to discuss some visitors that can hurt our birds: people and their pets. Last fall we met 11 dogs during monitoring at the station, five of which were off leash. One uncontrolled dog even charged into one of our (thankfully empty) nets! So far in 2024, we have met 13 dogs – two of which were off-leash. While it should be obvious why we do not want uncontrolled dogs around our nets and the defenseless birds they capture, unleashed dogs can create more subtle problems.

Free-running, off-leash dogs are predators, which can cause nest abandonment and injure or kill ground-nesting birds and other young or small animals. Although chasing wildlife may be fun for dogs, the time that birds spend avoiding dogs is time taken from foraging, raising young, or preparing for migration or the winter. A study in California found that while leashed dogs disturbed 11 per cent of birds who waddled away, off-leash dogs disturbed 34 per cent of birds who spent more energy taking flight. The resulting inability to forage suppresses our birds’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to diseases and parasites and can decrease chick survival rates by 23 per cent.

Avoiding dogs also limits habitat availability for birds, as dog walkers force wildlife into safe, but less desirable areas with more competition or to forage nocturnally. While an Edmonton study failed to detect how leashing laws influence bird populations since so many people disregard the regulations, an Australian study showed that the presence of dogs caused bird communities to be 41 per cent smaller with 35 per cent fewer species.

Dogs not only influence how wildlife use habitats, but the habitats themselves. Trampling, scratching, and digging off-trail results in damaged native plants, spreading invasive plants, and increased soil erosion. Although everyone poops, dog excrement is exceptionally high in nitrogen and phosphorus, transforming the chemistry of our nutrient-low soils to benefit invasive plants. Dog poop on beaches contributes to algae blooms and spreads canine distemper, salmonella, E. coli, and giardia that make wildlife, other pets, and humans sick.

While dogs have other options for exercise, many birds do not have other suitable habitat in which to breed or stop over. If we are considering only what is best to protect our wilderness, the weight of evidence suggests we should ban dogs in these areas – a measure undertaken seasonally on Vancouver Island and in Australia after years of trying to rein-in off-leash dogs. These bans protect migrating species and successfully raised survival rates of chicks hatched on Australian beaches from 12 per cent to 40 per cent.

However, we believe a compromise exists that balances our enjoyment of nature and the protection of wild spaces: control our dogs. It’s as simple as leashing them in sensitive areas and cleaning up after them. There are benefits for pups too since leashes keep them safe from other dogs, people, wildlife, diseases, accidental poisoning, and injury. A controlled dog is also prevented from becoming one of the over a million pets that go missing in Canada each year.

We look forward to meeting your leashed canines when we resume daily monitoring in July.

The LSLBO’s new Field Assistant, Julia Ritter, walking Robyn Perkins’ dog Strix at the LSLBO with a leash. Strix was found on Highway 88 in October.

by Robyn Perkins

July 1, 2024