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Bird population will likely be affected during Hawrelak Park reno, but timing of closure will help: experts

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As crews begin Hawrelak Park's three-year rehabilitation project, which will see 220 trees removed, some Edmontonians are wondering how local and migratory bird species will be affected.

A University of Alberta biological sciences professor says as mature trees are removed from urban spaces, the makeup of the bird population can change.

"We tend to get more black-billed magpies, house sparrows – which are interesting and very important species in their own right, but they are not the forest specialists that were naturally part of the ecosystem around Edmonton," Erin Bayne told CTV News Edmonton.

The city says the $133-million renovation to Edmonton's premiere river valley park is necessary to ensure the greenspace can continue to be enjoyed for generations.

Last month, an environmental impact report noted that 220 trees would be cut down as the city excavates stormwater, sewage, gas and electrical lines beneath the park. Officials say more than 200 new trees will be planted once construction work is finished.

Replanted trees or saplings can take 40 to 50 years to provide the same value mature trees do to an ecosystem, Bayne noted.

"All trees have value to something, whether it's the insects or the birds," Bayne added. "Whenever we remove mature trees in an urban neighbourhood, there's not that many. Reducing them does reduce the habit for some species."

He says the timing of the city starting the park closure is critical as any tree removal work now is outside the migrating bird cycle.

"This time is very important because most bird species have not arrived yet and have not started creating their nests," Bayne said. "So they're reducing the risk of accidentally destroying a nest by doing it at this time."

Fences were being put up around Hawrelak Park on Friday, March 10, 2023, before the park closes for three years for major renovations. (CTV News Edmonton)

According to the city, work crews will be instructed not to disturb wildlife and wildlife encounter protocols will be shared with all contractors. 

The original environmental impact report reviewed by councillors last April included bird surveys in June 2021, which found 22 species rely on the park for breeding.

Some risk impacts identified included the loss of habitats and disturbing breeding wildlife, but "most wildlife species in the area are likely already adapted to human disturbance."

Jesse Banford, city spokesperson, told CTV News Edmonton that project leadership is "working closely" with the urban forestry team and experts to "preserve as many trees as possible."

"The project team is working with biologists to ensure bird and wildlife acts are followed throughout construction," Banford added in a statement.

"Bird sweeps have happened on any trees that were identified as a concern and will continue to happen in advance of any tree removal," Banford said. "To date, no nesting has been identified."

Elsa Rasmussen, education manager at WildHeart, a northern Alberta wildlife rescue organization, says more than 100 bird species call Hawrelak Park home throughout the year.

She believes most migrating birds will be able to adapt and find a different nearby nesting place.

Rasmussen encouraged Hawrelak Park neighbours to make their yards a more attractive and safe place for nesting, including using reflective tape to mark windows and regularly changing water in bird baths.

"When birds are migrating, they are looking for resources like food or nesting sites," Rasmussen said. "Birds aren't very good at recognizing a sheet of glass.

"They just see the trees or sky looking back at them and they can really hurt themselves by bonking their heads, knocking themselves out or breaking bones."

For Bayne, the park renovation project shows a dilemma that Edmontonians have to weigh when it comes to conserving areas for wildlife.

"The fundamental thing that Edmontonians need to start thinking about is: our river valley is for recreating, but it also is for wildlife. And the types of recreation that we do versus balancing that with wildlife conservation is something we should really put thought to," he said. 

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