16. Zonotrichia atricapilla

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September 16, 2016

To avow Earth as one evolving consciousness. To welcome the human as our planet’s adolescent capacity for reflection. To follow evolution’s call beyond self into service. Is it quaint? A worldview for old Hippies with religious and scientific leanings? I choose it. And it chooses me. Lets take it into the back yard this morning and look at Golden-crowned sparrows.

As soon as I open the door onto the fire escape, a flicker’s “klee-yer” sounds-out loud. I step into the back yard and stand rooted. So much is happening. A bright yellow bird perches on the trunk of the Emma’s Delight apple in the fruit tree guild. Another in the plum. Wilson’s or Yellow warblers? I don’t know. Sparrows, plenty of them, House sparrows, but also some bigger ones, forage on the ground in the fruit tree guild, in clover, kale and thyme. Plain grey underneath, the head mainly black above the eyes, and the forehead olivey or yellowish – what is this sparrow?

A flicker lands on the back fence. The red-paint slash on his cheek declares male Red-shafted. He drops to the ground beside the dog-water/birdbath basin I keep in the park. He drinks and bathes cautiously – a couple seconds splashing then a few seconds peering around. He bathes long, with obvious enjoyment. I glimpse yellow under the tail. Bright and rich as commercially-packaged custard, it suggests Yellow-shafted flicker. So this one is a Yellow- and Red-shafted racial hybrid! I’ve been hoping to see one.

The mixed flock drifts away from the fruit tree guild, yard and park. One or a few birds at a time, the invasion is moving elsewhere. Plenty of bird voices remain. Hummingbirds tick and zoom. A raven croaks. Or at least it sounds to me more like raven than crow. Yes, a raven flaps above the apartments and across the park. What a day in the back yard! And here is a new bird on the back fence. Towhee – black head, red eye, orange sides. I thought we might not see one here – not enough dense shrubbery maybe. Does it follow along with the mixed flock today? It drops to the ground for a drink and bath, as cautiously luxurious as the flicker’s.

Fruit tree guild. Three times I have mentioned it without explanation, for which I apologize. The phrase comes from a landscape design practice known as permaculture. The term “permaculture” combines two words: permanent and agriculture. It is a way of working with Earth as though we intend to stay here. Permaculture observes natural life systems, and harmonizes our life systems into them. The world I would live toward is one big permaculture landscape. Here in the yard of the Quaker Meeting House on this Bowker Valley hillside, we have barely dipped our toe into permaculture. Our Ecology Group has planted a fruit tree guild. I take care of it, which requires little effort.

A guild combines plants that sustain one-another while producing a yield for the gardener, like a mini-ecosystem. The one in the back yard provides herbs and berries to eat, also flowers and foliage for the Meeting House on Sundays. Its future bestows big crops of apples and plums, I trust. The gardener doesn’t do much. The guild builds its own fertility without cultivation or additives from me. Dead foliage I chop and drop on the ground to enrich the soil, keep weeds out and hold water in. Mulch is a busy society. Today it fed those sparrows with the yellowish foreheads, hop-scratching the litter with both feet at once.

The plant I tend most carefully in the fruit tree guild is the Emma’s Delight apple. Only four exist. One is the original wild tree that bird droppings planted many years ago between a railroad track and a drainage ditch in Saanich. Sherryll and I sampled its apples, loved them, shook the tree and gathered about fifty kilos. We took the fruit to Harry Burton for identification. Harry’s AppleLuscious Orchards grows heritage apple varieties. He concluded that ours was a new one. The next spring we guided him to the tree to take cuttings that he could graft onto rootstock. Harry brought us three shrimpy trees in pots the next winter. “You should name the variety after your mother,” he advised Sherryll, “What’s her name?” When Sherryll said, “Emma”, Harry declared, “It’s Emma’s Delight.” Two grow now in larger pots. The other in the fruit tree guild. Any hungry caterpillar that would chew their leaves, I personally squash. Little birds are welcome to assist with caterpillar control.

The sparrows with the olivey or yellowish foreheads were Golden-crowned, Zonotrichia atricapilla. “Golden” would not have been my chosen adjective, but now I learn that breeding season turns the top of the head bright yellow. I won’t see it. They nest at high altitudes or latitudes at treeline. In the mountains behind Smithers, BC, for example, they nest at about 1,500 metres, on the ground beneath shrubby birch and krumholz. Great new word: krumholz means crooked, bent, twisted timber. Also known as knieholz, it’s the knee-high forest zone where snow and freezing wind dwarf and flatten fir, pine and spruce into dense foliage mounds. In Alaska, Golden-crowned sparrow nests along the edge between taiga and tundra, under shrubby willow and stunted conifers. Few of us find reasons to go there in everyday life, even avian researchers.

Not many scientists have studied Golden-crowned sparrow in breeding season. Among North American songbirds, the nest of Zonotrichia atricapilla was one of the last to be described – in 1899 during the Klondike Gold Rush along the infamous White Pass trail between BC and Alaska. Starving prospectors on the White Pass ate their horses, and probably sparrow eggs. Their name for Golden-crowned sparrow was Weary Willy. Its song may have matched their mood. Peterson’s field guide describes the song as “3-5 high whistled notes of plaintive minor quality coming down the scale, ‘Oh-dear-me’.” Prospectors heard it as “no-gold-here”. But I suspect that the little, brown, self-assertive energy bundle with its bright yellow stripe amused the tired, dispirited men and probably encouraged them.

More scientists have studied Zonotrichia atricapilla in fall and winter. At this time of year its entire population is relocating south, where more graduate students and birders await. Many birds will stop here all winter on southeastern Vancouver Island. Most will migrate further down the Pacific coast, some as far as Baha California. The northern edge of their winter range is here, around the Salish Sea. Climate change may be moving the range north. Few wintered here in the 1940s. By 1957, Christmas Bird Count records show 200 Golden-crowned sparrows in Victoria. From 1982 numbers began to rise sharply, exceeding 1,000 by 1993. In last year’s Christmas count (2015) Victoria topped the nation with 1,541 Golden-crowned sparrows.

That group this morning in the fruit tree guild may not remain in Victoria for the winter. Likely they pause here two or three days to feed. Tonight they may rise high above the Strait of Juan de Fuca and wing southward over the Olympic Mountains. Thousands of Zonotrichia atricapilla migrants funnel through Victoria this month. At the southernmost tip of the Island, Rocky Point Bird Observatory captures and bands hundreds every September. The Observatory functions as the Pacific coast station of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. Dozens of volunteers assist in counting, netting and tagging birds from mid-July to mid-October. Bird banding contributes much to our knowledge of songbirds. In California, for example, it explores how Golden-crowned sparrows cooperate in winter.

Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Bruce Lyon and his students have been tagging Zonotrichia atricapilla at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum for many years. In studies such as Across-year social stability shapes network structure in wintering migrant sparrows (Ecology Letters, June 2014), they show that a Golden-crowned sparrow returns to the same wintering area each year and joins the same group. They are not close relatives, just Golden-crowned friends who flock together every winter. They establish social rank within the group on the basis of head colour. Birds with the brightest yellow top and blackest sides lead the flock. And members of the flock recognize the same status relationships from year to year. The resulting, stable community cooperates, applying its collective attention to food and safety rather than to squabbles over dominance.

Studies of Golden-crowned sparrow at UC Santa Cruz help to shift my understanding of social status. My little human self takes dominance too personally. I experience my status in pride or humiliation. The sparrow flock tells me that social ranking is not really about me. Its dominance arrangement allows the flock to work together toward wellbeing for all its members. Competition is good, vital to community life, but evolution finds ways for every community to keep a lid on competition, channel it, minimize its violence, limit the resources of attention and energy it consumes. Status, this natural and useful urge, too easily becomes a compulsion for the human self. Ecology and evolutionary science reveal social ranking as a community function serving the greater purpose of collaboration. A perpetual fight for dominance misses the point of it.

The Principle of Cooperation guides permaculture: “Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and of future survival.” Permaculture’s founder, Bill Mollison states, in his book, Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual (1988):

“The present shift in emphasis is on how the parts interact, how they work together with each other, how dissonance or harmony in life systems is achieved. Life is cooperative rather than competitive, and life forms of very different qualities may interact beneficially with one another and with their physical environment.”

Permaculture design merges scientific and spiritual awareness. Bill Mollison, an Australian, honours traditional wisdom of Australian indigenous peoples. His understanding of cooperation in nature reminds me of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s words from the early 1900s:

“… co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.”

“… co-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness.”

(Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith, 1995)

Mutual benefit bonded that mixed flock this morning in the back yard. The warblers and Golden-crowned sparrows, the flicker and towhee moved through the neighbourhood loosely in concert. Most were migrants I suspect, newly arrived here. The warblers will soon head for Central or South America. Most Golden-crowned sparrows will continue south into the US, as will most Northern flicker hybrids. The Spotted towhee I don’t know much about. Is it a local bird, expanding its range for the winter? The mixed flock, strangers to one-another, of different species, in new territory, combine their attention, finding food and watching for predators.

When the spiritual teacher `Abdu’l-Bahá was portraying the universe as an evolving, unified body, the term “ecosystem” was not yet known. He expressed a truth that science also begins to expose: the interdependence, wholeness and unity of all life and being. He expressed also, I believe, an emerging spirit of a new era for humankind within our planetary being. We begin to value ourselves ecologically, as contributing functions of greater unities, as diverse parts of greater wholes, as Golden-crowned sparrows of a winter flock. A little brown bird, a modest wonder of the universe, I move within a larger consciousness and serve it.

Worldview is a choice. Michelle, the minister of the church my family attends, talks about the difference between “believing in” and “believing into” a truth. A new civilization emerges as people choose to believe into it, to live into it.

Tell me, Golden-crowned sparrow, whose garden is this?