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A Conversation with James Fox and Dr. Christian Artuso

As our American Golden-Plovers friends continue their epic journeys southward, we find them flying across Canada. We talked with James (JF)—a member of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation—and Christian (CA)—who works for the Canadian Wildlife Service—about the importance of birds like the American Golden-Plover to local communities, the need for safe places along their entire migratory route, and much more.

Tell us a little about yourselves and your love of birds.

JF: I was born in Prince George, British Columbia, spent my early years in northern Manitoba, but I have called ᐊᒥᐢᑿᒌᐚᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ pronounced Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton) home for the past 30 years. On my paternal side, I am a fourth-generation birder, my great-grandmother was a birder in Switzerland, before emigrating to Canada. My grandfather and father have birded in Manitoba for decades. On my maternal side, I am Indigenous, I am a treaty member of Tastaskweyak Cree Nation. I am Swampy Cree. I am an Indigenous artisan, specializing in traditional beading, caribou hair tufting, turtle and rawhide rattles, and drums. My springs and summers are divided between birding and powwows and Indigenous events selling my crafts and arts. I am one of the Alberta eBird reviewers, reviewing records for the 9 counties of Northern Alberta. I am also an editor for the Prairie Province Region for the ABA’s North American Birds. I co-edit with Rudolf Koes.

CA: I am of Italian descent, my father’s parents came as settlers to the lands of the Haudenosaunee, where I was born (on the island of Tiohtià:ke, a.k.a Montréal). I have the unfair privilege of having traveled and lived on five continents. I speak French, English, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin, and Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe and Algonquin), though the latter is not fluent. Languages and birds have been two enduring passions in my life. I have always loved wildlife from the earliest age I can remember. I was mocked for this as a child, I guess because society seemed to view bird watching as something quite weird (calling someone a “bird watcher” was an insult in my youth), perhaps a symptom of social ineptitude (except among senior citizens). Though I completed a PhD in environment and geography and built a career around birds, avian monitoring, and citizen science, it was no straight path. I owe a debt of gratitude to a particular woodpecker, a story I wrote about here. Today I live in Anishinaabewakiing (unceded Algonquin territory) working for the stewardship of migratory birds with the Canadian Wildlife Service. I support the great work of many First Nations and partners across the hemisphere. Supporting Indigenous-led initiatives and working with people like James and the Indigenous Kinship Circle is the thing that gives me the most hope for the stewardship of the natural world.

Are either of you involved with the Arctic Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (Arctic PRISM)? If so, can you tell us a little bit about that program?

JF: I am not involved with the program. My birding efforts are with eBird and North American Birds and recently I’ve begun working with Christian writing articles to bring awareness to conservation issues from an Indigenous point of view.

CA: I have not been directly involved in Arctic PRISM, though I am familiar with it through our Shorebird Technical Committee. I am involved in several aspects of shorebird work, including supporting your efforts and the northern Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area initiatives such as the Seal River Watershed. I also support the work of Latin American partners including Aves Argentinas on shorebirds such as the Hudsonian Godwit.

Auyuittuq National Park near Pangnirtung, Nunavut
Canada's Arctic. Photo: Isaac Demeester/Unsplash

Can you tell us about the importance of Canada’s Arctic to breeding birds, especially migratory species like the American Golden-Plover?

JF: The Canadian Arctic is one of the most important areas on the planet. The Arctic provides swamps, lakes, sloughs, and tundra for many species to rear their young. It’s amazing to think this area for most of the year is one of the harshest, coldest environments on the planet, but for a couple months every summer it thaws, blossoms, and turns into a rich, diverse breeding bonanza.

CA: The Arctic is such an amazing part of our planet, exquisite and rich, though often underappreciated. In many ways, the health of our entire planet is linked to the health of the Arctic, including of course the magnificent skeins of summer visitors, those millions of migratory birds with their myriad connections to diverse southern ecosystems, some as far away as Antarctic waters. I have spent a lot of time in the sub-Arctic around Hudson Bay and a little time in the Arctic of Nunavut. Of so many wonderful wildlife encounters, one thing that always speaks to my heart is the poetry in motion of the wielding shorebird flocks. For me, they also represent the principle of natural abundance, that the Anishinaabeg and others have taught me to appreciate and respect. Though my own cultural background values scarcity, a phenomenon that corrupts birding as well, I know that without that deep respect for natural abundance, with the balance of season and movement those shorebird flocks are just as vulnerable as the Passenger Pigeons we failed to care for.

Can you share the importance of the American Golden-Plover and/or other migratory birds to your community?

JF: They mean everything. Our entire culture is based on nature and our surroundings and living with and respecting nature. Migration plays a huge role in the traditional life of Cree peoples. We have months named after bird migrations and when animals do certain parts of their life cycle. Our sacred dances mimic and pay respects to animals and birds. Eagle feathers are one of the most sacred items in our culture.

CA: I have a soft spot for the American Golden-Plover. I was taught that they say tuu-siik, a beautiful rendition of their double whistle call, which I guess forms the basis of the species names in Iñupiak such as tuliik (i.e. onomatopoeia) and perhaps the word atsuk in Inuktitut. I have many fond memories of hearing that call on their nesting grounds, including one who loudly greeted me as I landed my canoe, or more likely protested my presence. They let you know that personal space is also important on the vast tundra and often make me veer wide around them on point-counting transects. I have seen them in pairs on the tundra, in flocks on the goose-grubbed flats, and all along their migratory pathway, and whether dressed in the finest back and gold or in their cryptic garb, they are always truly elegant creatures. I like to greet them as jiichiishkwenh, a word in Anishinaabemowin, which more often refers to the Killdeer.

American Golden-Plover on tundra.
"I have many fond memories of hearing that call on their nesting grounds, including one who loudly greeted me as I landed my canoe, or more likely protested my presence." Photo: Shiloh Schulte

The American Golden-Plover makes one of the longest migration journeys of any bird. Do you think it would change how people thought of them if they knew this?

JF: Of course. People are always interested in tidbits like this. I think generally the public is not very knowledgeable about shorebirds, but a fact like that could be what gets someone into birding. I think it’s important we share our knowledge with non-birders, we never know when something we say, or that one time we let a passerby look through our scope, and they see the bird that becomes their spark bird and interests them in birding. I always chat and interact with non-birder passers-by about what I’m looking at and the vast majority of time they have a look through the binocs or scope and show some interest. We never know when that next person we share knowledge with might not become the next Roger Tory Peterson David Sibley or Debi Shearwater and make some huge contributions to the birding community.

CA: Humans have known and been awestruck by the amazing migratory journeys of birds for so long, so it always amazes me how much we have forgotten, or driven from our minds and hearts. In learning Anishinaabemowin, I saw how deep knowledge was intricately intertwined within the language itself. For example, in the name of the Tree Swallow, zhaashaawanibiisi, lies the concept that they visit us from the south (the root of this name is a reduplication of the verb part zhaawani—“south.” There was so much resistance to the idea of bird migration in Europe and centuries of debate as to whether birds migrated or hibernated. Indigenous sciences already knew how to celebrate the gift of animal migration and translate that into an ethos of care and respect that prevented the abuse of abundance. For me, it does not matter who flies farthest or highest, what matters is what we share with them and that we work together to let them continue connecting our world. Sometimes you have to relearn some things!

James, can you share some information about any Indigenous-led conservation efforts happening to safeguard the lands and waters on and near the traditional lands of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation?

JF: Christian and I recently wrote an article about Indigenous-led conservation projects in my home territory in Northern Alberta, it can be found here. I am really torn about bands and reserves leading conservation projects. Of course, I believe it’s important to save these lands and areas for future generations, but I also know how much my own reserve is suffering. My ambivalence comes from splitting the time of my leaders when all of members of my reserve don’t have their basic human needs met. While my relatives struggle to have the necessities of daily life, it is hard to get excited that my band is playing a big part in conservation projects. My reserve is one of twenty-eight reserves that still have long-term water advisories. It’s sad, my reserve owns part of a couple massive hydro-dams, but we don’t have clean water or satisfactory housing, and much of our traditional hunting lands are flooded. I’m all for our leaders leading conservation efforts but I hope one day I can have unreserved pride and joy my band was involved when all our band members had homes and access to water.

CA: It is very important to underscore James’s message here. The gross inequity and horrendous abuse of power on this continent, which is so devastating for Indigenous people, is part and parcel of the same patriarchal system that is so destructive to Mother Nature. Equity and justice are integrally linked to “conservation”, a fact that is still sadly often ignored. Conservation has been and still often is harmful to people (and therefore ultimately to nature) and we need to change our approach. James’s vision is what we must strive towards, recognizing the enormous changes that entails.

Can you explain why it is important to protect locations throughout a bird's entire migratory journey?

JF: If I had my way, the entire migration route for all species would be protected. We have so much to learn about birds and migration, we need to protect them from further population decline and loss of habitat. One single location on a migration route can be so vital for a species. For example, Red Knots, Delaware Bay is of utmost importance. It’s only one bay but plays a huge role in the migration success of Red Knots. Horseshoe Crab roe at this spot gives Red Knots the calories they need for their final push north. In the grand scheme of things so little is known about bird migration and even less about shorebird migration. We don’t know what locations may play important staging areas for American Golden-Plovers. In Alberta, we usually see golden plovers in agricultural fields adjacent to swamps and sloughs. So much of northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories is under-birded, there may be staging areas we don’t yet know about. It’s important we protect the land that’s left. We’ve lost so much natural habitat of all different types of terrain we need to protect it all.

CA: Migratory animals have such beautifully complex life cycles. Asking them to forego any of the places that they have made significant in their evolutionary journeys and their individual life journeys, would be like asking a toad to forego being a tadpole because of a lack of water. Even the airspace we take so much for granted is habitat for a migratory bird or bat. They may not breed there but they cannot live without it. For the American Golden-Plover, the tundra and pampas are only two of the biomes that complete them. They need the hemisphere, the whole hemisphere, they need us to share the whole world.

Do you think projects like this American Golden-Plover project are important? Why or why not?

JF: Very important. Every research project no matter how big or small helps to contribute to the overall knowledge of birds. I see value in all research projects.

CA: My answers to the questions above is really why I think this is so important. Linking to the peoples’ worldviews, and to equity, and understanding how our own journey is tied to their flight and plight.

Find Dr. Christian Artuso on Instagram at @ch_artuso, Facebook at @chris.artuso.3, and X at @Birds_Manitoba.


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