4. Passer domesticus

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June 23, 2016

In the back yard at 5:30 a.m., rain patters on wooden stairs and railings and on leaves of the horse chestnut. I sit dry on the fire escape under the eaves. Today being Thursday, our other watering day, a sprinkler ticks. Ventilation fans roar at Jubilee Hospital, four blocks downhill. The hospital gives Jubilee neighbourhood its name and its unceasing background thrum.

This yard and little park at the centre of the block sit in a bubble of relative quiet. Buildings to left and right mute car tire swish from wet pavements of Begbie and Fort streets. The fire escape faces downhill across the park to Chestnut Street back yards. No traffic on Chestnut, a dead end.

A birdcall pierces the bubble. From the thicket I planted in a corner of the yard, a House sparrow projects repeatedly a single, sharp “chip”. Am I certain of that identification? For years I have assumed it, but now it seems not so simple. With help from my Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, I look for distinctive markings around the head: black, white, chestnut and grey. Humidity fogs the binoculars. Little birds in the thicket keep moving and concealing themselves. I can’t find one with distinctive markings. Adult males have them; maybe I’m seeing all females and juveniles.

Birdsong recordings don’t help much. I got them last Sunday after Holly, our daughter, took me out on a Fathers Day bird watching walk. Holly knows I’m trying to get serious about birds. We met a frighteningly competent birder who told us that she does 90% of her recognition by ear, not visually. So I have downloaded John Neville’s Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast onto my phone. Yes, the recorded House sparrows do sound like what I am hearing, but maybe other little brown birds do too. I wouldn’t know.

Fortunately, birds drop from the thicket onto the vegetable garden to peck in plain view. I find one adult male with the right markings. So I will stick with the House sparrow ID. I suspect they are all House sparrows, maybe the families from the nests above the window frames of the Meeting House.

Quakers worship in contemplative silence. Victoria Meeting, however, is not quiet at House sparrow nesting time. Usually, somebody opens a window for fresh air, and Meeting fills with strident feeding demands from House sparrow nestlings. The Friends include the clamour into their silence.

House sparrow numbers have been declining nationally, but you wouldn’t know it here. One reason cited for reduced population in Canada is change in building design. Modern structures do not provide enough nesting holes. The Quakers put up this Meeting House in 1913 when buildings offered more nooks and crannies. The window frames have wide ledges on top. Sloping sheet metal protects them from rain, and creates nesting cavities. Eight good nest holes sit atop the window ledges outside Meeting for Worship.

The Quakers built the place at the right time to welcome Passer domesticus to Victoria. The species invaded British Columbia in the early 1900s, the same years a building boom around Jubilee Hospital replaced farms with street grid. House sparrow range expanded fast in North America. Our birds in BC spread here probably from small flocks that people released in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the early 1870s. Descendents of those birds got themselves toSpokane, Washington by 1895, and to Seattle by 1897.

First imports to North America arrived in the early 1850s. People shipped Passer domesticus flocks from Liverpool to New York City. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Many now regret it, but I will avoid that discussion because House sparrows are more native here than I am. They got off the boat in NYC fifty years before my maternal grandparents disembarked there. Dad arrived later still. His ship from Liverpool docked in Montreal in the early 1920s, when House sparrows had been colonizing eastern Canada already for half a century.

The birder who Holly and I met on our walk told me that my bird book is out-of-date. Names and classifications have changed since my 1990 Peterson’s third edition. My book lists House Sparrow in the Weaver Finch family. A new edition would group them with Old World Sparrows, Passeridae. The many species of Old World Sparrow evolved in Europe, Asia and Africa upwards of a million years ago. Some species have gravitated to human-shaped habitats. For Passer domesticus, attaching itself to us has been its ticket to huge success.

Around ten thousand years ago, humans in the Middle East were developing agriculture. A seed-eater, House sparrow thrived on our new abundance of oats and wheat. A cavity-nester, it found holes aplenty in our new barns, granaries and towns. It remained a wild animal, but made our city and farm its habitat. Good choice. Farm and city spread across Europe, Asia and northern Africa, hosting Passer domesticus as self-invited guest.

Very recently, European culture colonized much of the planet and brought along animals from home. We hoped at first that House sparrows might help us by eating insect pests. They did eat insects; they ate almost anything, but mainly our grain crops. Not just in the fields, they followed grain into barns, train cars and mills. They were birds from home though. The 1800s saw imports to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and to British colonies in Africa. British colonialism made Passer domesticus the world’s most widespread wild bird. It still is.

When humans have failed to import them, House sparrows have stowed away on ships to immigrate. They probably shipped themselves here to Vancouver Island. In my mind, birds on a wharf on the mainland are stuffing themselves with oats from a torn sack. The sack and birds rise into the air then descend into a deep hole. The ship’s hold darkens as hatch covers thud shut overhead. Later in the day, the hatch opens, the sack rises again and descends onto a wharf in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. A carter and horses haul the sack to a warehouse, followed by little birds new to town.

Great times those were for the House sparrow. Horses ruled local transportation; grain spilled everywhere; other immigrants from Europe greeted you, fed you crumbs and left you crusts. Now times are more difficult. Not only is grain harder to find in the city, but even insects when you need them. House sparrow nestlings eat nothing but insects in the first four days of life, and insects remain their staple for the first two weeks. “A primary cause for the decline [of House sparrows]”, Wikipedia informs me, “seems to be an insufficient supply of insect food for nestling sparrows.”

I have not intended to garden here for the benefit of House sparrow nestlings, but it seems I have. “Protecting insect habitats on farms, and planting native plants in cities”, Wikipedia suggests, “benefit the house sparrow, as does establishing urban greenspaces.” For example, the busy thicket in the corner of the back yard: Several years ago I planted some native shrubs there along the north fence. A few plants found their way beyond the back yard into the corner of the park. A little wooden fence appeared around them. The Parks department mower left it alone. Now blue elderberry, red-osier dogwood, serviceberry and ocean spray vie for light above thimbleberry and Nutka rose. Leaf and branch litter decomposes on the ground. It’s great habitat for insects. Little birds feel safe there.

Merv Wilkinson gardened the same way, on a more noble scale. Sherryll, Holly and I met him once in his driveway, in his nineties, sitting in the sun on a kitchen chair in front of his house at Wildwood. He had logged Wildwood for more than sixty years. Merv’s approach to logging was different from British Columbia’s industrial style. Clearcutting was the norm for us – leave no tree standing; truck away the logs; pile up the waste wood and burn it; plant little trees in rows of single species; help them along with insecticide and fertilizer. It was tidy gardening of nightmare proportions.

On his 32 hectares, Merv selected individual trees to cut and drag to his sawmill. Logging every year since 1939, he was proud that Wildwood now held more standing timber than when he started. He was happy for his neighbours, such as our friends Steve and Suzanne and their children, to walk and play amid his vibrant forest. It took two families to reach, hands linked, around Douglas firs 800 years old. Trees of many species, all ages, grew where wind or squirrels had planted them.

Merv told us that Wildwood had never had problems with insects infesting and killing the trees. He didn’t use insecticides. He said that probably every kind of insect pest lived in his forest, but so did every kind of bird that eats them. He took care of the forest ecosystem, and it took care of his livelihood.

Only one change would Merv have made, he told us, if he had it to do again. He logged for a few decades, he said, before learning to leave fallen trees and branches on the ground after storms, instead of dragging them away. A 2007 article in Wild Foresting quotes him: “It took forty years for me to see that dead wood on the ground was necessary for soil building, moisture retention, habitat for fungi and insects and other ecosystem functions. Without healthy soil, you can’t have a healthy forest – it is the real resource.”

It comforts me that even our environmental local hero was caught for years by the urge to tidy away insect habitat from his garden. We have the same issue in this yard and park. Seeing last year’s dead, collapsing fern fronds can feel too painfully untidy for Fern Street Park volunteers. Our traditional gardening style may love plants, but it hates insect habitat. Cultural heritage bids us rake, trim, prune. Merv’s approach, caring for garden ecosystem, not just for plants, takes some growing into.

And its outcomes may disturb. I try to ignore the irony, but this morning I must admit, my care for local native ecosystem benefits an invasive bully bird from Europe. Internet images show gory House sparrow violence, casting native birds from nest holes. How parallel to my own cultural history in the New World. The human family that tended this hillside meadow 300 years ago, how did it fare after Old World culture arrived on this coast? The images might be unpleasant to look at. You, Passer domesticus, remind and embarrass me.

Yet, Old World sparrow, here we are on this New World hillside. “New World”, the term is my cultural spin. New to us, sure, like a Roman hillside is new to the Visigoths or Vandals who stand in its rubble. You, chirping monotonously in the thicket, my fellow barbarian here, and I, crunch beneath our feet scattered shards of ecosystem and culture, once elegantly integrated. My society, in moments of nostalgia, brought you here from home. Will I now turn against you?

You experience no moral scruples over your impact here. Fine, I experience plenty for both of us. This hillside’s wisdom and beauty before we invaded allures me. Mighty voices of evolution converse ever within human soul; habit debates with creativity, difference with communion, divergence from with attraction to. “Fit!”, they now agree, “Reconcile!” Here we perch and chirp, House sparrow, you in the thicket, I on the fire escape, no longer really new to this hillside, nor yet really native here. We will someday belong to this valley, and it to us.