Saturday 6 August 2016

Not-so-silent Spring

I'm gradually becoming accustomed to my new home and one of the things I continue to be thrilled about is the abundance of birds. Protected greenbelts to the north and south feature big trees, trickling water, wild plants producing seeds and berries, lots of underbrush, and generally just plain good habitat for feathered creatures. A healthy population of wild rabbits provides sustenance for the barred owls whose hooting calls have lulled me to sleep most nights. I'm grateful each day for all these creatures and their sounds: the robust morning arias of robins, the daily cheerful twitterings of sparrows, chickadees, waxwings, towhees and all the other songbirds, and then, at dusk, the haunting serenade of the owls.

The same goes for my rustic little place on Mayne Island where I can simply sit among the trees and be engulfed by the sounds of nature - frog choruses in the spring, buzzing insects in summer, and always birds: the repetitive peep-peep-peeping of nuthatches, the chatter of woodpeckers, the trill of wrens, and the amazing vocabulary of the ravens whose complex conversations drift down from the treetops. And yes, there are owls there too. The sounds of these wild creatures simply soothes my soul.

I would not have known about the rambunctious wren family that took up residence in one of my Mayne Island bird houses if not for the exuberant chatter of the youngsters each time a parent visited with a morsel of food.

Nor would I have known that there was yet another family of juncos in the nest over the cottage's patio door if not for the soft trill of young birds - barely audible but distinctive - marking the second or perhaps third brood to be raised there since the nest first appeared in March. And no, I haven't used that door in months lest I disturb the family living above it. A small sacrifice on my part.

The donated birdbath in front of the cottage has provided a bathing and drinking place, attracting all sorts of little birds as each day's light begins to wane. They flit down from the trees to take a few sips or splash about, providing me with entertainment I can observe from my doorstep.

I'm in love with it all, not to mention artistically inspired!

Golden-crowned kinglet (coloured pencil)

Dark-eyed junco (coloured pencil)

American robin (coloured pencil)

But back on the mainland in my new home I do not take the chorus of birdsong for granted. The development that's expanding in this corner of the Fraser Valley is monumental. While efforts are being made to preserve trees and set aside bits of wild space, the landscape is being dramatically transformed from small, semi-rural acreages to an urban jigsaw puzzle of dense housing.

I find myself wondering if the owls will continue to find a place to live and hunt here, and how long I can look forward to sharing the woods with them. I found a beautiful feather just today. I'm concerned about the barnswallows who swoop and feed on flying insects in a nearby field rimmed with bulldozers and digging machines awaiting their orders. I fear the family of red-tailed hawks who have reared at least one youngster in the tall trees adjacent to my townhome may soon loose their lofty nest as that plot of land is transformed into a business complex. The birds will move on but the question becomes increasingly... where will they go?

Today I came across a startling sound-bite on the Internet: a one minute audio clip
that documents sounds in a California forest over a period of 10 years, 2005-2015. I don't think anyone could listen to this and not be moved. Click here to hear it for yourself and find out more about its author.

For more than 50 years, scientists have been warning about the potential of a "silent spring" - a spring without birdsong. Bird populations are dropping dramatically world-wide due to pesticides, habitat loss and a myriad of other factors. It appears that in California that terrible silent season already arrived.

I don't want this post to be depressing. Judging by the volume and complexity of the birdsong in my two neighbourhoods there's plenty of hope. However, if the woods of Sugarloaf State Park can transform from a cacophony of sound to virtual silence in the span of just a few short years, there is a need for mindfulness. We can't take our feathered co-inhabitants of this planet for granted and, like the proverbial canaries in coal mines, their silence could be the precursor of worse things to come for all of us.

What we can do? I think it starts with becoming aware and pro-active. There are a number of websites that offer helpful ways we, as individuals, can help birds. Among my favourites are Bird Studies Canada, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, and there are many others. If we each take their suggestions to heart and put them into practice, what might seem like small individual efforts become, as a collective, a movement that could help ensure our wild spaces and our neighbourhoods continue to be enriched by the sound of birdsong.

I think it's worth noting that in Canada the number one killer of songbirds is our own army of pet cats who are allowed to roam free (according to Environment Canada 200 million birds are killed by cats each year). Just by keeping our cats indoors, if not full time then at least during the most sensitive times, a staggering number of birds could be saved.

Window Cat (hand painted silk)

As I write this, a stunning yellow goldfinch has just streaked past my window. I hope that's a sight I will be able to enjoy for many seasons yet to come.

Goldfinch (hand painted silk)


  1. How amazingly wonderful...thank you for sharing!

  2. Another sad loss due to domestic cats is the most darling of all creatures the striped Chipmunk. It is classified as Endangered in the US and largely due to cats. :(
    Cristine Cameron