Posted | filed under Weekly Reports.

Now that the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory is focusing on our monitoring programs for breeding songbirds, we want to discuss some visitors that can hurt our birds: people and their pets. Last fall we met eleven 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 thirteen 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% of birds who waddled away, off-leash dogs disturbed 34% of birds who spent more energy taking flight 1. The resulting inability to forage suppresses our bird’s immune systems, making them more vulnerable to diseases and parasites 2 and can decrease chick survival rates by 23% 3

Avoiding dogs also limits habitat availability for birds as dog walkers force wildlife into safe, but less desirable areas with more competition 4,5 or to forage nocturnally 6. While an Edmonton study failed to detect how leashing laws influence bird populations since so many people disregard the regulations 7, an Australian study showed that the presence of dogs caused bird communities to be 41% smaller with 35% fewer species 8.

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 9. Although everyone poops, dog excrement is exceptionally high in Nitrogen and Phosphorus transforming the chemistry of our nutrient-low soils to benefit invasive plants 10. Dog poop on beaches contributes to algae blooms 11 and spreads canine distemper 12, salmonella, E. coli, and giardia 13 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 stopover. If we are considering only what is best to protect our wilderness, the weight of evidence suggests we should ban dogs in these areas 14 – a measure undertaken seasonally on Vancouver Island 15 and in Australia 16 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% to 40% 17.

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 1 million pets that go missing in Canada each year 18.

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

Above: Dogs are welcome guests at the LSLBO so long as they are contained and well behaved! Here our new Field Assistant, Julia Ritter, walks Robyn’s dog, Strix, who was found in the middle of Highway 88 last October on Robyn’s way to run our owl program.

By Robyn Perkins, LSLBO Bander-in-Charge

Literature Cited & Additional Reading:

  1. Rubiano MPA. 2020. Why leashing dogs in an easy way to protect birds and their chicks. Audubon:
  2. Hennings L. 2016. Thei mpacts of dogs on wildlife and water quality: A literature review. Metro Parks and Nature:
  3. Pearce-Higgins JW, Yalden DW. 2003. Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria breeding success on a moor managed for shooting Red Grouse Lagopus lagopu. Bird Study. 50:
  4. Villatoro FJ, Naughton-Treves L, et al. 2019. When free-ranging dogs threaten wildlife: Public attitudes toward management strategies in southern Chile. Journal of Environmental Management. 229:
  5. Yalden PE, Yalden DW. 1990. Recreational disturbances of breeding golden plovers Pluvialis apricarius. Biological Conservation. 51(4):
  6. Ross T. 2022. Off-leash dogs could cause problems with Calgary’s wildlife. CityNews:
  7. Forrest A, St. Clair CC. 2006. Effects of dog leash laws and habitat type on avian and small mammal communities in urban parks. Urban Ecosystems:
  8. Banks PB, Bryant JV. 2007. Four-legged friend or foe? Dog walking displaces native birds from natural areas. Biology Letters. 3(6):
  9. Bakeman M. 2008. The effects of off-leash dog areas on birds and small mammals in Cherry Creek and Chatfield State Parks. Colorado State Parks:
  10. Cava S. 2020. To leash or not to leash – should that even be a questions? Nature Conservancy Canada:
  11. Cooke A. 2019. Your dog’s poop might be polluting waterways. CBC News:
  12. Martinez-Gutierrez M, Ruiz-Saenz J. 2016. Diversity of susceptible hosts in canine distemper virus infection: a systematic review and data synthesis. BMC Veterinary Research 12(78):
  13. Canadian Public Health Association. [accessed 18 Jun 2024]. Human diseases transmitted by dog poop.
  14. Schneider TJ, Maguire GS, Whisson DA, Weston MA. 2019. Regulations fail to constrain dog space use in threatened species beach habitats. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. 63(6):
  15. City of Victoria. [accessed 19 Jun 2024] Dogs in parks.,June%201%20and%20August%2031
  16. Gaines J. 2023. Hiking with you dog off-leash could create problems for nature. Discover Magazine:
  17. Dowling B, Weston MA. 1999. Managing a breeding population of the Hooded Plover Thinornis rubricollis in a high-use recreational environment. Bird Conservation International:
  18. B.C. Parks. 2024. Dogs in BC Parks: Leash ’em if you love ’em! BC Parks Blog: