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Greeting the dawn chorus

Have you noticed something happening in the backyards, the parks and the natural spaces of Squamish? A presence so familiar in our community and in this landscape that we seem to take it for granted at this time of year? This "something" is the oldes

Have you noticed something happening in the backyards, the parks and the natural spaces of Squamish? A presence so familiar in our community and in this landscape that we seem to take it for granted at this time of year?

This "something" is the oldest sign we know of - the return of the songbirds. Early risers are now greeted by the "dawn chorus," a cheerful cacophony of chirps and whistles emanating from the trees and shrubs in surround sound. And they treat us to an encore performance each evening, insisting on concluding the day in song. So the birds are singing - it's nice but sometimes it's a little annoying, especially when you've just come off night shift and you need to get some sleep. In a sense, the songbirds too have just come off night shift. But their "night shift" is literally one of time and space; an ancient pattern of mass movement of species across surprisingly vast distances, sometimes thousands of kilometers, as they follow their food sources. We know these phenomena as migration.

Most bird migration takes place nocturnally, when birds are less likely to be targets for predators. Also, nighttime migration is thought to allow birds to better "thermoregulate"; that is, balance their body temperature in response to their surrounding environment. The cool night air wicks away the excess heat generated from constant flying, preventing the birds from overheating and succumbing to heatstroke or exhaustion.

Many of the songbirds in the Squamish Valley have traveled from as far away as South America to return to our part of the world to feed, nest and breed. It is still somewhat of a mystery as to exactly how these birds navigate across the globe, and like the Pacific salmon, find their way back to their breeding grounds year after year.

During their journey, migrants face many hazards, including bad weather, predators, collisions with buildings or vehicles, and the effects of pesticides and other chemicals. Upon their return, these birds may find their habitats drastically altered by human activities; there may be housing developments or roadways where there used to be nest trees, cover and food sources. This is why the Squamish Estuary is such an important place for birds, both migratory and resident, as it provides the necessities of life from year to year.

But because human alteration of the landscape takes place on a global scale, songbirds experience these changes across their entire range; there is virtually nowhere on their migration routes that is untouched by human activity. As a result, many bird species are in serious decline and are at risk of extinction. Bad news for songbirds, and for us.

So what can we do to help? For starters, consider "naturescaping," or turning your backyard into a more bird-friendly environment by planting native trees and shrubs. If you have bird feeders, make sure you clean and maintain them regularly; moldy seed and dirty feeders can make birds sick. Offer birds a water supply, safely away from predators, where birds can bathe and drink. If you have a cat, consider keeping it indoors, since cats kill or injure millions of songbirds each year across North America. Get to know the songbirds in your area - local birders meet every Sunday for walks in the Squamish Estuary, and birding can be a fun and inexpensive family activity.

Check out these upcoming Squamish Songbird Festival Events:

Sunday, May 2: Dawn Chorus

5:30 a.m., Squamish Estuary, Vancouver Street entrance

Join the thousands of folks worldwide who rise early the first Sunday in May to listen to the songbirds and give thanks to our jubilant harbingers of spring.

Sunday, May 2: Dawn Chorus Reward

6:15 a.m. Howe Sound Inn

Wake up your appetite for an early morning breakfast and toast the songbirds from the Red Heather at the Howe Sound Inn.

Sunday, May 2: Monthly Bird Count

7 a.m. Meet at the Howe Sound Inn

The early bird gets the data! Stumble down to the estuary, learn more about Squamish birds and contribute to our scientific research.

Saturday, May 8: Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day at the BAG

7:30 p.m. Film: Winged Migration

Delicate creatures 'on wings as fragile as a whisper' undertake epic journeys of thousands of miles to nest in our valley. Watch amazing film footage of migratory bird flights.

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