Guidelines to avoid disturbance to seabird and waterbird colonies in Canada

This section provides information on the impacts of disturbance to seabirds and waterbird breeding colonies and guidelines to avoid disturbance of colonies.


Seabirds and waterbirds are particularly vulnerable to the effects of human disturbance.

Most species spend much of the year at sea, but part of their life is spent on land. In spring and summer, they congregate in colonies in order to court, mate, lay and incubate their eggs, and raise and feed their young.

Breeding seasons along Canada’s southern oceanic coasts extend from March through September, and through the ice-free period in Canada’s Arctic

Colonies can range in size from a few pairs to over a million pairs. The birds tend to nest in the following locations:

  • islands or cliff-faces near water
  • ledges, open rock, under boulders, in crevices or burrows near water
  • on roof tops
  • in marshes

Nesting colonies are vulnerable to the following factors:

  • human disturbance
  • habitat loss and destruction
  • catastrophic events such as storms, disease, and oil spills

Colonial waterbirds can be found in marine and freshwater environments, however the distinction is not clear-cut as many species occur in both environments. Their presence may vary depending on the time of year.

Species that occur primarily in the marine environment (seabirds) include:

  • puffins, murres, Razorbills, guillemots, auklets, and murrelets
  • gannets
  • shearwaters and fulmars
  • petrels

Species that occur in both marine and freshwater environments include:

We provide general information on seabird colony locations on Canada’s east coast, Arctic coast and Pacific coast.


For hundreds of years, seabirds and colonial waterbirds were exploited for meat, eggs, and feathers, and many breeding colonies were disrupted by human disturbance and development.

The Great Auk, a flightless colonial-nesting seabird, was harvested to extinction by the mid-1800s.

Concern over severe declines in the numbers of seabirds breeding in coastal regions of Canada’s eastern provinces is one of the issues that contributed to the adoption of the Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1917.

Legal protection

Federal laws protect:

  • all regularly occurring seabirds and waterbirds (except cormorants and pelicans)
  • colonies, when they are located in:
    • Migratory Bird Sanctuaries
    • National Wildlife Areas
    • National Parks or National Park Reserves

Most colonies in protected areas are closed to visitation during the breeding season.


Some species of birds are protected by both the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 and the Species at Risk Act (SARA). SARA prohibits certain activities for listed species. In some cases, more specific recommendations or information on nesting periods may be found in Species at Risk Recovery Strategies or other official documents. At all times, it is your responsibility to comply with all federal, provincial or territorial legislation. See more information on requirements related to residence protection under SARA.

Impacts of disturbance

When planning your activities, you should be aware of the potential impacts of disturbance on seabird and waterbird breeding colonies.

The following activities may affect birds negatively:

  • approaching colonies by land or by water
  • landing boats
  • letting pets run loose
  • walking across breeding areas
  • staying too long in one spot

Disturbance can cause birds to:

  • abandon their nests or young
  • use valuable energy reserves for defense, instead of incubating eggs and feeding their young

Getting too close to nests may prevent adult birds from returning to protect and feed their young which can expose eggs or young to predation, and to the lethal effects of heat, cold and rain.

Nests might be difficult to see. A careless step in a colony can destroy a bird’s breeding burrow, nest, eggs, or chicks. Remember that:

  • many species of seabirds and waterbirds nest in:
    • hidden crevices
    • burrows
    • vegetation
    • on top of exposed rocky ledges
  • some species are active only after dark

When adult birds are flushed, many of the young chicks wander from their nest site and may:

  • fall to the water
  • be taken by predators
  • be injured or killed by neighbouring birds

Some species are particularly sensitive at certain stages of their breeding cycle. For example, disturbance can cause chicks to leave the nest too soon, resulting in chick mortality.


During the breeding season, you should:

  • stay off seabird and waterbird colonies
  • maintain appropriate buffer zones around colonies
  • avoid any disturbance of migratory birds

Activities in waters around breeding colonies, such as fishing and boating or low-altitude flying, can also put birds at risk. You should keep activities far enough away to avoid:

  • flushing birds from their nests
  • causing birds to dive at you in an attempt to drive you away from the colony

In all cases where you may be disturbing seabirds and waterbirds, move away as quickly and quietly as possible.

General guidance on reducing disturbance to colonies that do not have other restrictions are given below.

On land

  • You must maintain a sufficient distance to avoid disturbing nesting birds. Signs that birds are disturbed include adults displaying erect posture while sitting on their nests, increased vocalization and adult birds leaving their nests
  • Maintain a buffer of at least 1 km from colonies for high-disturbance activities (such as drilling or blasting)
  • Follow the rules and directions where appropriate fenced viewing facilities have been established
  • Only approach colonies at authorized locations

If you should inadvertently find yourself at a colony, leave as quietly as possible and without sudden movements.

On the water

  • You must maintain a sufficient distance to avoid disturbing nesting birds. Signs that birds are disturbed include adults displaying erect posture while sitting on their nests, increased vocalization and adult birds leaving their nests
  • It is preferable to travel at steady speeds when close to seabird and waterbird colonies, moving parallel to the shore, rather than approaching the colony directly
  • Avoid any sharp or loud noises, do not blow horns or whistles, and maintain constant engine noise levels
  • Do not pursue seabirds or waterbirds swimming on the water surface, and avoid concentrations of these birds on the water
  • Where possible, use certified tour boats or accredited guides
  • Anchor large vessels, such as cruise ships, at a suitable distance to avoid disturbance
  • Do not disturb birds when approaching colonies in small vessels
  • Never dump waste or garbage overboard, because:
    • even small amounts of oil can kill birds and other marine life, and habitats may take years to recover
    • fishing line, cans, plastic bottles and other plastic waste can injure or kill birds

From the air

  • Aircrafts can cause severe disturbance to colonies of seabirds or waterbirds, and there is a serious risk of collision with flying birds
  • Helicopters, drones and other aircraft should keep well away from breeding colonies
  • Protected areas such as Migratory Bird Sanctuaries and National Wildlife Areas may have specific restrictions regarding flight altitudes
  • Pilots should contact the regional Canadian Wildlife Service office for information regarding:
    • appropriate flight altitudes and horizontal distances in order to minimize disturbance to bird colonies
    • specific restrictions regarding flight altitudes near protected areas such as Migratory Bird Sanctuaries and National Wildlife Areas

Contact us for more information regarding:

  • report of a new colony location
  • specific restrictions on buffer zones
  • specific flight restrictions in or near protected areas
  • access to bird colonies for research purposes
  • advice on safe distances to observe seabirds or colonial waterbirds

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