Who are the Sentinel Species?

By Courtney Baker

It’s dark, damp, dripping. Workers with sore backs descend staggering depths to reach their claustrophobic destination. Dangerous, dirty, sweaty; one heavily geared man carries precious cargo, a brightly coloured, charming bird. Yes, it’s a Canary in a coal mine. 

Canaries were used in mining as recently as the 1980s. These small, sensitive song birds detected a lack of oxygen and gasses such as carbon monoxide in mine shafts, warning workers to retreat when they could no longer breathe clean air. 

These animals are called sentinel species. A noble name for our use of them. Humans have used many species to sound warnings, bats are identifiers of pesticide loading in the food chain, honey bees can’t survive heavy air pollution, pigeons are detectors of lead, list of animals we use as lookouts for environmental danger goes on, and on. 

Here at The Couchiching Conservancy in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss we monitor many species, including salamanders. These amphibians breathe through their skin and reproduce in water because of this biology they are very accurate markers of environmental health.  Populations diminish quickly when exposed to pollutants. Not only can they notify us of the presence of contaminants but they can also let us know how quickly these substances dissipate once managed. 

Today it seems that all song birds are canaries and the earth is their coal mine. The number of song birds has decreased by nearly 30% since 1970.  Not only do these beautiful species control populations of other animals like mosquitos, but they themselves are food for predators. They are a critical member of the ecosystem and food chain. One wonders, how much of a food chain has to disappear before ecosystem collapse? Is it much more than 30%? 

Canaries being carried down and dying in coal mines isn’t history’s whole story. Many of these birds were loved and well cared for. Whistling back and forth with their human counterparts. They were often revived when they were brought out of gaseous spaces. A cage design was even developed with a tiny oxygen tank on top. If a Canary was exposed to gas, the cage was sealed shut and oxygen was pumped in to revive the little birds. 

So, only half the story is the utility, the important half is that we worked to innovate, and save these sensitive birds. Even miners, tough as granite, still cared for these gentle creatures, and we can care for the gentle creatures of our community. 

Just two weeks ago participants raised thousands by participating in the Carden Challenge to protect the habitat of all species that experience bioaccumulation, habitat loss and sensitivity to pollution. By protecting their habitats, we protect our own habitat. If you would like to contribute to protecting our home please visit www.couchconserv.ca/donate 

The story you choose is up to you, I choose the one where together we can save the world. 

Courtney Baker is the Office and Acquisition Coordinator at The Couchiching Conservancy, protecting nature for future generations.