23. Haliaeetus leucocephalus


April 22, 2017

Balm of Gilead, Mom called it. Aroma of cottonwood buds in Fern Street Park this morning took me back sixty years and north to the Nass River at Easter. The river offered the only road to Greenville, a Nisga’a village. Men from Greenville ferried us upriver. Us included Mom and other adults arriving for the consecration of a new Anglican church. People of the village had built it and carved its interior woodwork. Balm of Gilead bathed us from cottonwoods in bud along both banks. On their branches perched hundreds of Bald eagles.

In Fern Street Park this morning, one gull keened from a condo block roof. Then many gulls, urgent, loud, mobbing a Bald eagle that cruised low across the park. The eagle was probably hunting their nests on the flat roofs.

Eagles nest in Bowker Valley and take seagulls as a dietary staple. I have seen evidence. Walking the little grandson, asleep in the stroller, down a street in Oak Bay, my plan was to look at birds in the native plant habitat area along the streambank at Monteith. The distinctively silly call of a Bald eagle altered our route. Probably the call would not sound silly from a lesser creature, but this is our most majestic bird, of striking plumage, pure white head and tail in stark contrast to its dark body, our grandest raptor, its hooked beak and grabbing talons, bold yellow. The glare from its yellow and black eye freezes the blood of more timid beings, myself included. Great ornithologists have shared my assessment of the Bald eagle’s voice. Arthur Cleveland Bent termed it “ridiculously weak and insignificant.” William Brewster described it as “weak in volume and trivial in expression….a snickering laugh expressive of imbecile derision….” But when you hear it and turn your steps toward it, you see a Bald Eagle.

I saw two of them in the tall Douglas fir behind Oak Bay’s fire hall, adults at their nest, Bowker Valley’s only nesting pair. I watched from the parking lot, standing on top of the creek. The Oak Bay Fire and Police stations, their parking lot and Fireman’s Park cover decades of household garbage and construction refuse that the municipality dumped there, filling up Bowker Creek’s gully after culverting the stream in 1914. That project seems to have ended the runs of Coho, Chum and Cutthroat up the valley. I can’t find any historical account of salmon or trout since. TheDouglas fir behind the fire hall probably sprouted pre-1914, on the lip of the gulley above the creek. Now the tree’s stout upper branches support a heavy nest of tangled sticks, about two metres wide and thick. One eagle stood in the nest conversing with the other on a branch above. I wondered if they had eaglets there. White feathers of a seagull wing hung over the edge of the nest and fluttered in the wind.

Eagles in the city prey largely upon other metropolitan birds. People around Victoria report Bald eagles chasing and grabbing gulls in the air. Much recent research on urban Bald eagles comes from across the Salish Sea, from the Greater Vancouver area. Eagles nesting in cities there take seagulls, crows and pigeons as the bulk of their diet. In the bigger North American picture, the Bald eagle eats fish as perhaps 90% of its food, and prefers fish to all other meal choices. But it hunts and scavenges opportunistically. Seagulls happen to be the most abundant food here. Less than 2km offshore we have Great Chain Island and the Chain Islets, a nesting colony for thousands of Glaucous-winged gulls. Bald eagle is a chief predator at Glaucuous-winged gull colonies. Our Oak Bay Fire hall eagle nest is one of the closest to Great Chain Island, and our pair of adults likely hunts there regularly.

Bald eagles, at present, are making headlines for re-colonizing urban areas in North America. After avoiding cities, suburbs and farms for many decades, they nest now in Philadelphia, Washington (DC), Pittsburgh and Miami. New York City recorded a nesting pair in 2015, the first in 101 years. On the British Columbia coast, eagles never completely deserted our cities. But almost. Greater Vancouver in the 1960s hosted only three active eagle nests. They have increased remarkably. By the end of that century, more than 100 pairs nested in Greater Vancouver, and by now, a few hundred pairs.

In the 1960s North America’s Bald eagle population was hitting a dangerous low point. From the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 birds on the continent when European settlers first arrived, we had reduced the number by maybe 90%. In Canada, about 25,000 to 50,000 Bald eagles remained, and about 10,000 in Alaska. But the 48 states below the US border recorded less than a thousand. There, the pesticide, DDT, was claiming an alarming toll. As top predators, eagles accumulated DDT from the food chain. It caused their eggs to have thin shells that broke in the nest. After the US banned the pesticide in 1972, Bald eagles began their impressive comeback.

Yet DDT had not been the prime cause of their decline. More basically, people had made a moral cause and a sport of killing top predators. Black-and-white eagles made easy targets. By 1940, the US had recognized the possible extermination of its national symbol as a problem, and Congress passed a Bald Eagle Protection Act. Bounty hunting in Alaska ended in 1952. The DDT disaster in the 1960s further helped people change our attitude.

From my viewpoint in the summer of 1968, working on a salmon fishing seine boat on BC’s north coast, the enemy was us, the destructive disposition of my own culture. The boat stayed anchored in a cove for a day in stormy weather. The cook went ashore with his rifle, and I went along. I liked him, a bluff-but-kindly man in his 50s. Walking in ancient rainforest, we found no deer. The cook noticed a Bald eagle high in a tree and shot it. He couldn’t understand my appalled and disgusted response. We saw the eagle through different moral lenses, from different concepts of our place in or out of nature. The bird stood crippled on the forest floor and glared at me as I clubbed it. What a fierce, magnificent being!

Admittedly, we have been killing eagles on this coast for 15,000 years or more. But not as sport or moral crusade. Around the Salish Sea before European settlement, people roasted, steamed or boiled Bald eagle as food. We also prized its feathers for the eagle life-force they represented. Young men quested to gain powers from eagle spirit. Hunters sprinkled the snowy-white down of eagles to bless their hunt. Bald eagles have watched while our hunters and fishers gutted and butchered our catch, then have glided down to eat the refuse we discarded. We have understood our interdependence.

We have gathered seasonally with them at rivers to feast from spawning runs of fish –  such as at the Nass River in early spring. The eagles I saw in cottonwoods along the banks assemble there every March and April for oolichan. Masses of the little fish come in from the sea to spawn and die. For the eagles, as for the Nisga’a people, oolichan offers food abundance at the end of winter. Greenville, the village I visited that Easter, has since reclaimed its Nisga’a name, Laxgalts’ap, within a self-governing Nisga’a Nation. That church has since burned down; the people have rebuilt and St. Andrew’s stands as the largest Anglican church north of the Vancouver area.

Our spirituality on this Northwest coast evolves. History has thrown diverse cultures together. We labour to find our fit. Each has brought its truths. Each, in its own earlier context, had responded profoundly to the difficulty of human life, its danger, suffering and possibilities. Humans seek always to transcend limitations in our existence. Now we hear each other’s truths. From cultures indigenous to this place we hear that human success depends upon mutual obligations in community. We hear that our community includes every species and every habitat where we live. Species, we hear, is a cloak, a dance mask that conceals our common essence as persons. Our welfare lies in serving the survival of all types of being. Old, imported illusions of otherness from nature, we begin to transcend. We begin to listen to each species in the valley where we live.

We hear Bald eagles in urban areas now because we are changing. Our laws protect the trees eagles nest in. Their defenders in every city closely monitor nests. I search “oak bay fire hall eagles” on the internet. A post from “sassyk”, September 4, last year:

“Welcome to the Oak Bay Eagles thread for the 2016/2017 season. There are 3 nests in the Municipality of Oak Bay, known as the Fire Hall, Golf Course and Anderson Hill nests, that have been monitored by the locals for many years.” (http://archive.hancockwildlife.org/forum/viewtopic.php?showtopic=909089)

Scrolling down the page teaches me much about the Fire Hall eagles. The adults returned to their nest in October and began “nestorations”. People noticed them over the winter in a perching tree beside the bay near Bowker Creek’s mouth. An adult started sitting on eggs in mid-February. At least one hatched by late-March. An April 13 post by “elle”:

“Yesterday afternoon I finally got a picture of Mom FireHall with a very large fluffy and active eaglet in the nest with her. It looks to be about 3 weeks old. I don’t know if there are 2 eaglets or just 1 this year.”

There are two eaglets this year. Local people also contribute data to the Bald Eagle and Osprey Nest Record Registry. It maps the Douglas fir behind Oak Bay Fire hall as wildlife tree BAEA 101-604 (See http://cmnmaps.ca/wits). A data entry, March 20:

“One adult eagle on the nest, two eagle chicks could be seen.”

Bald eagle nesting in urban habitat is limited by scarcity of suitable trees. The birds require prime real estate. They prefer waterfront, but will accept a good beach view a couple blocks back from the shore. They need a mature tree, perhaps 150 years old, 35-40 metres high, 1-2 metres thick, and super-sturdy. An eagle pair builds a heavy nest, sometimes 1,800 kilos, and may maintain it for a decade. The tree must provide a wide view and allow approach from different directions for upwind landing. On this part of the coast, Douglas firs most commonly meet the criteria. But urban areas don’t easily accommodate massive trees. Fitting more humans into our landscape, we select plants of modest dimension. People might want eagles nesting here beyond this century, so we need to plant Douglas firs now and protect them.

The Fire Hall eagles stay from October to July. They disappear for August and September. Adults and juveniles likely head for northern rivers to feed from salmon spawning runs. The Fire Hall adults return from the buffet to reclaim their nest territory, while juveniles continue to roam as nomads for five years. Adults’ heavier, more powerful bodies favour chasing and capturing prey, while juveniles’ lighter bodies enable their livelihood as wide-ranging scavengers. High soaring allows them to glide hundreds of kilometers with little energy cost, and to watch where other eagles congregate.

A few hundred assemble in winter near Victoria at Goldstream River. They scavenge on carcasses of spawned-out Chum salmon. The humans here continue our spiritual evolution. In the future in Bowker Valley we will watch with eagles as Chum spawn in Fireman’s Park, in Bowker Creek, arisen from its culvert. In the meantime we will transplant a young Douglas fir to the native plant habitat area at Monteith. One of our gardeners has it growing now in a pot on her balcony.


21. Regulus calendula

Version 3

February 11, 2017

“And here is a Ruby-crowned kinglet at the suet block in the side yard!  Amazing. Three days ago I would have called it a bushtit and not noticed that very distinct wing bar (white). What you see depends on what you are looking for and what you know is possible.It was sitting on the clothesline. I saw a little spot of real red on top of the head.”

What I wrote in my notebook this morning is true. Knowing what is possible and what to look for increases the variety of birds I find in this yard. The sparrows on the ground under the suet cage might all have been House sparrows to my previous eyes and brain, but this morning I saw Golden-crowned and Song sparrows also feeding there.

Three days ago at Cattle Point I assumed I was looking at a bushtit on the ground beneath split cedar railings of a zig-zag fence. Any miniscule, dark-olive songbird was a bushtit to me. A binocular-toting man I was talking with at the time saw it as “some kind of wren, maybe”. But a man with a telescope on a tripod said, “It’s a Ruby-crowned kinglet.” He pointed out the white wing bar. He also pointed out, on the bay among the American wigeons, the pinkish strip atop the head of a Eurasian wigeon. Judging from the numbers of binoculars, telescopes and big camera lenses at Cattle Point, birders had converged to see that rare visitor from Siberia. Lucky for me; I learned how to recognize a kinglet.

A bonus today was seeing the spot of red on the kinglet’s head. My books indicate that the male displays his ruby crown only for aggression or attraction. Feeding, he kept it folded quietly flat, almost out of sight. Crowns give kinglets their genus name. The Latin, Regulus means “little prince” or “princeling”. The Ruby-crowned kinglet is Regulus calendula. But princelings typically wear gold headgear, not red. Our other kinglet species in Victoria is Golden-crowned, Regulus satrapa.Andall other regulid species display gold, or at least orange, tops.

Ruby-crowned calendula stands apart from its Regulus cousins also in behaviour. The others are more sociable in winter. Golden-crowned satrapa, if I ever see it in the back yard, will be traveling several-together probably, filtering through the trees in a mixed flock with chickadees. Calendula will most likely turn up again at the suet alone. It will roost alone at night, while its satrapa kin huddle together to keep warm. Ruby-crowned so differs genetically from the other little princes that some scientists advocate removing it from Regulus into its own separate genus. In evolution it was the earliest to branch away from the ancestors of other regulids, maybe thirteen million years ago.

Our other kinglet, Golden-crowned, is more closely related to the regulids of Eurasia, where all other members of the genus live. Closest genetic sister to Golden-crowned satrapa is the Goldcrest, Regulus regulus. They parted ways genetically around five million years ago, but both occupy the same ecological niche on separate continents. They specialize, picking insects off conifers, each ranging across the boreal forest of its continent. Golden-crowned kinglet so strongly prefers insects that I will never see it at the suet block.

Does Regulus satrapa ever visit this Fern Street hillside in winter? Most likely. Golden-crowned is a common Victoria winter bird. In Christmas bird counts we top the nation. Golden-crowned sightings in the count here are five times more numerous than are Ruby-crowned. The great majority of Ruby-crowned kinglets flies further south to milder weather. The Salish Sea marks the northern limit of their winter range on the coast. The banding station at Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO) at the southernmost tip of the Island captures and tags fall migrant Ruby-crowned kinglets in greater numbers than any other bird. By contrast, Golden-crowned tolerates a colder climate. RPBO bands far fewer of them. Many Golden-crowned kinglets winter as far north as Anchorage, Alaska in coastal conifer forest.

A few mature conifers grow around Fern Street and the park, well-visited by chickadees in mixed flocks. But will I notice the Golden-crowned kinglets among them? Maybe the black and orange stripes of the crown will attract my attention. Or maybe the tiny, high, busy, concealed foragers will escape my notice. Smallest of little brown perching birds in North America, they hunt in the foliage at a feverish pace, almost one peck per second all day. Literally feverish, their metabolism burns at about 430C, demanding two or three times the bird’s own weight in bugs to fuel it. And I won’t hear them.

The online Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia comments on Golden-crowned kinglet’s “…extremely high pitched calls that most of us lose the ability to hear with age.” The Handbook of Birds of the World Alive website notes:

“In general, Regulus vocalizations are thin and low and are easily missed by the human ear…. Among the whistled and high-pitched songs of most Regulus species, only the loud and melodious warbling of the Ruby-crowned kinglet stands out. Indeed, this species lively song has led to its being ranked as one of the most brilliant songsters of the North American passerines.”

In recordings of kinglet voices, Ruby-crowned sounds agreeably loud and cheerful. The song of Golden-crowned is barely audible to me, at the upper limit of my hearing range, and probably beyond. Listening to a Golden-crowned kinglet felt like a hearing examination with Stacy, my audiologist; I strain to detect those high notes, knowing that she has already been giving me tones I have not heard at all.

Stacy does not yet recommend hearing aids, for me, but I will not hesitate to adopt them. I hate the idea of getting disconnected from nature by inability to hear the full range. My first prompting to visit the audiologist was a walk with Sherryll in pine forest in BC’s dry southern interior. I couldn’t hear the crickets that she claimed were scraping loudly all around us. My problem was just wax buildup, Stacy discovered. I can again hear crickets loud and clear. “The Mosquito”, I cannot hear. Some shopkeepers use the device to drive away loitering teenagers with horrible noise too high for most people older than 25. Daughter Holly still hears it though. She avoids walking past a house on Beach Drive that uses high-frequency shriek to repel deer from its front-yard flowers. Do deer communicate with high sounds I can’t detect? I think of them as silent. Are they noisy?

That’s the irony. I hate losing ability to hear the sounds of nature, but nature functions largely out of my sensory range anyway. Earth makes vast use of sensory information that people don’t get. A mole tunneling most likely discriminates smells, tastes and vibrations far beyond my capability. A spider finds plenty of toeholds on a ceiling that feels completely smooth to me. Trees communicate with chemical signals we have only begun to discover. Some humility might be appropriate in the humans. Our greater body and mind, Earth, gathers, processes and acts upon information at ranges and by systems to which we are blind.

Some of us develop more able perception than others. Those wine and whisky tasters aren’t just snobs; they have worked to build brain pathways that honestly do get the overtones of grapefruit or papaya or cement. My sister Moira really can tell what spice the chef skimped on. As a taster I can detect too much salt only when I reach the crumbs at the bottom of the potato chip bag. I think of a medical doctor I once read about; an LSD flashback suddenly sharpened his olfaction; in his office waiting room he could smell each of his patients in such upsetting detail that he had to go away. Amazing sensory capacities lurk within us unrecognized. We give so much brain space and energy to language that we ignore our perceptual potential until we really need it.

My friend Richard, as a blind child on a farm, had to get himself from the house to the barn, so he developed his brain for echo-location. He snaps his fingers and listens. In a café so noisy that I strained to converse across the table, Richard exclaimed, “Germany scored!” Besides chatting with me, he was listening to a televised World Cup game that I hadn’t noticed and couldn’t discriminate. An auditory superhero! The brain is amazingly able to repurpose perceptual channels when we need or decide to. People alone a long time in the forest can re-tune their sense and perception to levels of awareness that look supernatural from our urban armchair viewpoint.

Separate yourself from language for weeks or months and you perceive and think in new, old ways. For young men or women who take to the bush alone, for religious hermits, vision questers or contemplatives, the states of dreaming and of full conscious waking need not be separate. As with traditional hunter-gatherers and their shamans, visions may belong in your daytime life, while concrete, present reality may belong in your dreams. The guiding, protective hands of linear time and space may loosen their grip. Standing in forest beside a beach in Haida Gwaii, you might see plainly a thriving village from hundreds of years ago, even as you see the last rotting and overgrown vestiges of its house posts. Language comes to the human mind both as an amazing gift and as a perceptual jail sentence. The term “mystic” comes from an old Greek word that means “mouth shut”. As you gain ability in quieting the chatty brain, you increase your chances of tuning more clearly into your complete environment. It may manifest wider dimensions of time and of mind than you expected.

A silent, fasting, one-week retreat in a forest was my own furthest foray into living without language. Sherryll gave it to me for my 50thbirthday. She dropped me off in southern Alberta in a young poplar forest that was reclaiming an old gravel pit. A retired Mennonite minister facilitated the retreats there, preparing and debriefing with the participants. Each of us had a separate small clearing in the forest with a tarp shelter. By the trail to the clearing, a gallon jug of water was placed each morning. Being alone in the forest without speaking or hearing language or reading it or seeing another person, drinking water, walking round and round the clearing, enabled my mind give me vivid dream percept at the same time as full presence to the solid, waking world. To my brain, an animal I knew to be long extinct from that locale could tower colossally large in front of me, occupying the same space as the trees, equally clear and three-dimensional.

Journaling and debriefing back in camp with the group allowed me to put language concepts or meanings to the experiences. They turned out astonishingly mundane. I was fifty, mid-life-crisis-aged. I had come to the retreat with some hope that a great, life-changing purpose might be revealed. I ended the quest knowing clearly that my family and job were exactly the right focus for me. And worse – the facilitator gave names to the participants who completed the retreat – mine was “Little Brown Bird”. How deflating! He did add “Beautiful” to the front of the name, which helped hardly at all. But here I am, years later, glad of the wholeheartedness I brought home from the quest, writing essays about little brown birds in this yard and hillside and Bowker Valley. You learn what to look for and what is possible. You start to see what is around you, what has been and what might be. In this ordinary, urbanized, almost invisible little valley you uncover such beauty.

20. Sphyrapicus ruber

IMG_2385January 5, 2017

Chatter of House sparrows filled the back yard at 3:30, an hour before sunset. Their quick shifts perked up trees, shrubs and the ground. A Bewick’s wren clambered and poked on the bark of a trunk. A junco flitted through the garden. In the park a Song sparrow employed its two-footed hop-scratch in the leaves under the birch, and robins enlivened lawn and trees.

By 4:00 sun lit only the treetops, kindling seed cones orange on the Douglas fir at the far end of the park. Bare twigs of the garden thicket did not hide the towhee sitting inside. I reminded myself to open to this place, to make the small motion of mind that brings me alive to it.

By 4:15 sun was gone from this east-facing hillside, but still lit up the tallest poplars in the valley bottom. The Bewick’s wren, Song sparrow and towhee continued to work the back yard. New action high in the horse-chestnut tree caught my attention. A woodpecker was breaking into the globe of a large wasp nest from last summer, ripping and flinging bits of paper. In twilight I saw white markings down a black back. Almost all of the bird’s head appeared dark red. A Red-breasted sapsucker. Last week, at New Years, Sherryll and I watched one beside a trail.

She insisted that I stop and look. Our walk had just begun and myGoals-Fitnessapp was tracking an 8K session. I didn’t want to stop. I know what’s good for me though. Sherryll is a strong walker, but she pauses along the trail to thank individual trees and birds, which annoys me but helps me see. A woodpecker at the path’s edge was gleaning in the bark of an alder, not shy of us, combing for insects. On my iBird Canada app I tapped “British Columbia”, “Tree-clinging-like”, and “Medium (9-16 in)” and got seven matches, woodpeckers. All had markings of red or yellow around the head, but only Red-breasted sapsucker had the entirely red head and throat. We watched until the bird moved into the woods out of sight.

So today I recognized the Red-breasted sapsucker demolishing the wasp nest. Recognized rather than identified. A ten-year-old girl made that distinction in a radio interview I heard recently. She had just completed a birding “big year”, seeing or hearing 227 species. She said that birders prefer to “recognize” rather than “identify” birds. It’s like the difference between identifying a suspect in a police line-up and recognizing a friend on the street. This winter in this yard, most of the birds feel to me happily familiar. This is their place and mine, and I recognize myself at home with them.

I don’t expect to see a Red-breasted sapsucker here often. Birds of Victoria and Vicinity describes it as uncommon in the area and rare in the city, preferring rural woodlands. The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region directs us to damper locales, west toward cedar and hemlock rainforest or north to mixed fir and maple woods. Winter is probably our best time to see them in town.

This winter the Audubon Christmas bird counters in Duncan, 50K up-island from Victoria, saw BC’s highest number of Red-breasted sapsuckers. Thousands that nest in the interior of the province move out to the coast in autumn, while those that breed here around the Salish Sea remain resident year-round. I would guess that the individual today at the wasp nest was a migrant from the interior, wintering on the coast, seeking insects and suet blocks in the neighbourhood. Does it also maintain sap wells around here somewhere?

Sapsuckers consume tree sap in all seasons. The BC interior, where sap freezes in the trees, cannot serve as winter habitat. Even on the coast, prolonged icy weather in some winters can be deadly. The number of Red-breasted sapsuckers in the province fluctuates extremely, and appears to crash in years with extended cold snaps on the coast. Researchers Wolf Ziller and David Stirling reported on a possible example of such a population disaster on the islands of Haida Gwaii. In 1950 the mean January temperature at the town of Masset was -50C. (230 F.) In an article for the Forestry Chronicle (1961) they note:

“Sapsucker holes drilled at the base of large hemlocks on Moresby Island indicate that the birds were attempting to find food by pecking through thick bark near ground level where cambium was not yet frozen.”

Normally, Red-breasted sapsuckers excavate their sap wells in thinner bark, higher and on younger trees. Walkers in woods on Vancouver Island often see the pattern of square holes they carve. It begins as a row of short slits across the trunk. Each slit pierces the bark to the layer of phloem cells that transport sap. The bird eats the phloem and scoops the liquid that oozes into the slit. The sapsucker tongue has evolved with a brush at the end for licking. They should be called “saplappers” really.

The Red-Breasted, Sphyrapicus ruber, regularly works a circuit of many wells on several trees. It slurps accumulated sap and gradually enlarges the slit into a rough square, resulting in a row of squares across the trunk. As they run dry the bird cuts new slits below. Many rows of squares gradually extend in columns down the trunk. If you see that pattern on a tree hereabouts, Sphyrapicus ruber almost certainly engraved it. The species’ closest cousins, S. varius, Yellow-bellied sapsucker, and S.nuchalis, Red-naped sapsucker, leave similar traces on trees, but rarely stray onto Vancouver Island.

For nesting, the three sapsucker cousin species have BC nicely divided among them. The Red-breasted population centres in mild coastal climate, in coniferous rainforest such as at Haida Gwaii. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers breed mainly in boreal forest of northeastern BC, and migrate far east and south for winter. Red-naped sapsuckers prefer aspen groves of the dry southern interior for nesting. They winter in the US southwest and Mexico. Our Sphyrapicus ruber’s breeding range overlaps with both other species in hybrid zones.

Able to interbreed successfully, ruber, varius and nuchalis were officially lumped until 1985 as races of Yellow-bellied sapsucker. Why did the American Ornithologists Union award Sphyrapicus ruber its separate species status? The more I look into the question, the less simple the answer becomes. Scientists use the term “species” rather pliably, it turns out. Various definitions and standards may apply.

Red-breasted sapsucker defies the most common definition of “species” by interbreeding with Yellow-bellied and Red-naped, and producing fertile offspring. The hybrids can successfully breed. Ruber, varius and nuchalis gene pools do not remain fully isolated from one-another.

Genetically, Red-breasted and Red-naped sapsuckers are the most alike of all bird species. The similarity of their genes would better qualify them for subspecies status. Ruber, with its deeply red head, looks strikingly different from nuchalis, but merely reducing the amount of red carotenoid pigment in ruber’s head feathers would produce an almost typical-appearing Red-naped sapsucker.

Scientists believe that, ruber, nuchalis and varius have been diverging during and since most recent Ice Age. That period contained colder and warmer times, glacial advances and retreats. Variations in climate and ice probably separated the birds’ breeding ranges at some times, but allowed merging and mixing at other times. Around a million years ago, common ancestors of Red-breasted ruber and Red-naped nuchalis began to differentiate from ancestors of Yellow-bellied varius. Later, maybe 500,000 years ago, ruber and nuchalis started to sort apart from one another. Recently, 25,000 to 11,000 years ago during the last glacial advance, isolated populations of Red-breasted sapsucker likely persisted in refugia on Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island. In warmer climate since then, ruber’s breeding range has intersected again with its cousins, allowing some flow of genes among them.

Calling Red-breasted sapsucker a species recognizes that it has passed a point of no-return in differentiating from its cousins. Genetic mixing among them tends to stay in the hybrid zones of range overlap, not spread much into the wider populations. The hybrid birds seem not to fit in well. They are less successful at passing their genes along to the next generation. Ruber’s distinctly red head may be a factor. Red-breasted sapsuckers prefer mates that look like them. Another factor might be spring migration habits. Ruber has its own timing for arrival in its breeding areas and for courtship. Also, it is distinct ecologically from varius and nuchalis. They do not share Red-breasted sapsucker’s intrinsic fit in coastal rainforest community. The whole package of differences – appearance, physical structure, body chemistry and behaviour – separate Sphyrapicus ruber enough for the American Ornithologists Union to call it a species.

That term has posed a problem for science ever since Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species changed our understanding of how living things come to be. Darwin recognized the problem:

“I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other…. No one definition has satisfied all naturalists: yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of species. Generally the term includes the unknown element of a distinct act of creation.”

People need common agreement about the different kinds of beings and their names. Prior to 1859 we knew that a “species”, any distinct kind of being, had been created complete, on-the-spot, at-the-moment. Since Darwin and Wallace we know that becoming a distinct kind of being is a process. It advances over centuries or millennia. Speciation is a long conversation in which a physical environment, its living community and a new idea are tussling, modifying, attaining a good enough match-up to become a long-term habit.

Our wet Northwest coast environment, its rainforest community and the Red-breasted sapsucker idea have worked out their fit. Each defines the other. Sphyrapcus ruber has become a keystone species here. Its sap wells contribute food to at least forty-eight bird species, six mammals and dozens of arthropods. Hummingbirds literally follow the sapsucker on its route around its wells, both for sap and for insects it attracts. Availability of sap wells may affect winter survival for Anna’s hummingbird, and migration routes and timing for Rufous hummingbird. Red-breasted sapsucker nest holes provide nest and roost sites for many forest vertebrates. Tree swallow and Violet-green swallow populations depend on them, and Northern flying squirrels may also.

The sapsucker also helps renew mature forest. Sphyrapicus ruber prefers to excavate sap wells in trees that are already unhealthy. The wounds allow fungi to inoculate and hasten decay. Punctures through the bark near the ground in mature conifers, such as Ziller and Stirling described in Haida Gwaii, can let in fungus at the roots. The rot causes giant trees to fall, which opens gaps in the canopy. A burst of new growth results in the openings and maintains diversity in the rainforest community.

Becoming a species is more about linking than separating. We might view speciation as a process in ecosystem for expanding the community’s network of interdependence, its variety and complexity. Same with individuation in humans. We become uniquely ourselves in the give-and-take of matching-up with family, community and place. I modify and discover myself as Sherryll and I negotiate a walk in the woods and a stop to watch a sapsucker, as I garden with native habitat in the yard, the park, the valley, the streambank, as I fight for it, labour with the other gardeners, and include Fuller and Emma.

Next morning I go out to dump compost on the pile. The sun isn’t up yet. From the fire escape I recognize an Anna’s hummingbird tick somewhere above me and a Bewick’s wren rasp somewhere below. We’re home.

19. Melospiza melodia


January 3, 2017     9 a.m.

A tenor on the Christmas playlist was singing In the Bleak Midwinter, and the yard outside the living room window did look chilly and bleak. A feeding flock of little birds was filtering through. Bushtits swarmed the suet block that hangs from the clothesline. A towhee on the lawn below it collected bits that showered down. The bushtits dispersed from the suet cage and a sparrow landed. Not one of our everyday regular sparrows at the feeder. Those are plain grey underneath, but this one had brown streaking that converged on the breast into a dark spot. A Song sparrow. I had been hoping to see one in the yard.

Midwinter is a good time to see Song sparrows around the Salish Sea in back yards. Fall migrants converge from the interior of the province and from the northern coast. Many move through, headed for Oregon or California, but many stop here at the southern end of the Island and join feeding flocks with other little brown birds.  So the Song sparrow this morning at the suet cage was likely a winter visitor.

But it might have been a local resident. Various races of Song sparrow, Melospiza melodianest in British Columbia and coastal Alaska. Ours on the southern coast, Melospiza melodia(morphna), mostly remain here year-round. Soldiers in World War II found coastal resident Song sparrows wintering even on Attu, the extreme northwestern island of the Aleutian chain in Alaska. In the journal article Winter Birds of Attu(The Condor,March 1946) George Sutton and Rowland Wilson reported on the Aleutian subspecies, M.m.(sanaka):

“We saw these interesting finches daily. Even during the wildest gales one or two of them stayed around the door of our barracks, looking for something to eat. Most of them lived along the shore, spending virtually all their time between the water’s edge and the snow – a coastal strip varying in width from a few feet at high tide to a hundred yards or so at low tide.”

On sandflats at low tide, the Attu Song sparrows joined flocks of sandpipers feeding on tiny snails. Some pairs maintained territories over winter among gasoline drums in US Army scrap heaps. Sharing the shoreline with people was normal for subspecies sanaka. In past centuries human villages thrived on Attu. Winter snow pushed people and sparrows both into the tidal zone to forage among the sandpipers.

Evolving to survive winter in the bare strip between ocean and snow probably helped our Pacific coast Song sparrows through the most recent Ice Age. Research suggests that resident populations of Melospiza melodia survived in coastal refugia where glacier halted short of the shoreline. Song sparrows likely persisted on Haida Gwaii seashore, and possibly on Vancouver Island’s Brooks Peninsula, as tidal zone specialists. When glaciers melted around 15,000 years ago, refugium birds probably colonized much of BC and the Alaska coast. Humans may have spread out from the refugia also.

I watched a Song sparrow at the shore of Portland Island near Victoria in August. Sherryll and I enjoy rowing out and camping there. At the Shell Beach campsite, families with kayaks tented around us. On dry sand beside a log on the beach a little brown bird tilled a moist-dark furrow. A double hop with both feet uncovered beach fleas and set them jumping. The bird gobbled them where they landed.

Next morning in the tent, at the edge between prayer and sleep, a canoe prow glided into my left peripheral vision just off the beach. No one paddled the wide, long canoe, carved of wood, sliding past. Old people stood in it, maybe fifteen of them. Fear was my first response. An omen! My overloaded rowboat would sink perhaps and I would join those old people. But no. Those were Elders. Shell Beach campsite, over many generations, was their seasonal home. The sand where my rowboat sat aground on the early morning low tide was their clam flats. Shell Beach retains, I choose to believe, its long human consciousness.

Drowsing again I heard a moment of voices that laughed and sang, and a tool that repeatedly knocked. Left peripheral vision glimpsed people working, maybe six or ten of them, back on the shore toward the trees, maybe an extended family, maybe putting up a shelter. A woman generated fun in the task as she worked, with joking and singing.

I left the tent to jot notes at the picnic table. Predawn, two kayakers quietly packed for an early start. Deep motor rumble crossed the water as the first ferry emerged from Fulford Harbour. A seagull and a crow had their say; a raven croaked and two glided over the campsite. Families slept in their tents: children, parents and a grandpa. Shell Beach remains a place of families and their shelters.

That woman I glimpsed drawing her family’s energy into a common task with fun – she stood also, I imagine, among the Elders in the big canoe. The human is a social animal. Elders want community to thrive, whole community, including the sleeping people and the sparrows on the sand flat.

Our local Song sparrows are less social than we. Melospiza melodia(morphna) focuses fierce attention on individual territory, lifelong, summer and winter. We have studied their habits closely for many years. The most studied of all Song sparrow populations inhabits Mandarte Island, a few kilometers from Portland Island. Passengers on the ferry from Sidney, BC to Anacortes, Washington have noted Mandarte Island as the huge white rock, bare of trees, with some colourfully-painted shacks and many old outhouses. The outhouses are in fact observation blinds for researchers. They have occupied the shacks every summer for several decades.

Mandarte Island ecosystem over millennia has included seasonal human visits. From ancient days we landed to dig camas bulbs and shellfish, and to gather seabird eggs. Maps label it also as Bare Island Reserveand it belongs to the Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations. Satellite images reveal Mandarte as a colossal sea-cucumber, stranded and petrified as white sandstone. A central groove down the length of the island (700 metres) grows thick with shrub. Zooming-in on the picture from space shows the paths researchers tread in the shrub to locate every Song sparrow nest each year. I won’t ever visit Mandarte Island physically, so I appreciate the satellite image perspective and intimacy.

And I appreciate the book Conservation and Biology of Small Populations: The Song Sparrows of Mandarte Island(2006). UBC professor Jamie Smith and other editors assembled research from five decades. Life is brutal for those birds. Habitat on the big rock imposes strict population limits – breeding territories for no more than 150 Song sparrow pairs. Excess population is controlled mainly by death of juvenile birds. First-year birds vie for status. The winners, the most dominant, have most access to food and the best chance of securing territories and mates. Winter survival is highest for birds paired in territories. Song, particularly for males, is a weapon in their battles. Singing is a life-and-death fight.

First-year males on Mandarte learn their songs largely by listening to adult territory-holders. When he leaves the nest the young male floats among nearby territories. He quietly copies adults and engages in singing contests with his age-mates. By September or October he may stake his claim and wrest his piece of the rock. He takes the fight to territory-holders around him, and perching centimeters away, bashes them with his song repertoire. Entire songs that he learned from an adult male, he may fling back at its owner. The confrontation might last two days. Beak and claw fights can result, but rarely. The young male might or might not succeed in singing-back opponents from the borders of his new territory. If he fails, he may resume his marginal existence as a floater. If he survives winter as a floater, he can try for a territory again in early spring.

Singing ability reflects the overall quality of the bird, research suggests. On Mandarte Island, males with the largest song repertoires typically win territories soonest, maintain them longest, live longest, attract females most strongly and contribute most descendents to future generations. Females also work out their dominance hierarchy, but researchers have not yet studied it as thoroughly. By October, a juvenile female who does not succeed in pairing with a territory-holding male has virtually no place on the island. Winter mortality or emigration removes them. In the yard here, the suet block may sometimes feed a juvenile female displaced from Mandarte or another nearby island.

Nasty as it appears from a human perspective, displacing first-year females provides a vital boon to populations on small islands. The young female may appear next spring on a different little island and find a mate. She brings new genes. Research shows that inbreeding is a major hazard for isolated populations. Birds with a portion of immigrant blood are better by all measures. They even sing larger repertoires. The Mandarte Song sparrows would degenerate without a constant trickle of immigrant genes into the population.

It disturbs me to read about Song sparrow dominance, survival, aggression and territory. I see those themes in my own life and I don’t like them much. Last fall, chairing with the North Jubilee Neighbourhood Association felt to me like a territorial scrap, prolonged and exhausting. I perched and sang my repertoire about Bowker Creek, habitat rehabilitation and public greenspace. The struggle wore down my resilience and hopefulness and consumed too much of my attention. My practices of exercise, meditation and listening for birds mostly lapsed.

Walks with Fuller, the one-year-old, help me pay some attention to birds. The little guy, as I pushed him on the swing in Fern Street Park, said “Ooo” and pointed up at groups of cormorants crossing purposefully overhead. He said “Ooo” and pointed at the neighbour’s bamboo thicket where Golden-crowned sparrows sang more musically than the usual roosting gang of House sparrows. But mainly he just wants me to push the swing.

Song sparrow singing is beautiful and brutal at the same time. I think of Fuller. His baby play will develop, I suppose, into normally aggressive dominance play with other little boys. Vying for high rank in dominance hierarchies and for territory – the urge is intrinsic to Fuller, to me, to the human animal, same as to Song sparrows. But the human is a social animal. Fuller will manifest also, I trust, the normal human urge to fit and to serve in community, in collective entities beyond self and immediate family. We need that capacity right now on our tiny island.

One of the great photos from space is the Pale Blue Dot, Earth from six billion kilometers away. In 1990, theVoyager Onespace probe turned its camera back toward home just as we were vanishing in the distance. We see our planet as tiny and alone as, in Carl Sagan’s words, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. If we view Mandarte Island as a small, isolated habitat, what is Earth? We observe the Mandarte Song sparrow solution to over-population and over-consumption in a small island ecosystem. How will we humans resolve ours? We now use up far more resources each year than our habitat can replenish. We degrade the planet’s ability to support us. Our population and consumption continue to increase. Like the sparrows, we face limits.

But we are not them. Their instincts prompt them only to fight for dominance and territory. Ours move us also to expand kinship, widen community and serve. We zoom-in the blue dot in space and observe an island population that is humankind, an island ecosystem that is Earth life. We extend it our concern and care.



18. Troglodytes pacificus

Horse chestnut leaves

November 1, 2016

Another little bird has a new name. The American Ornithologists’ Union replaced “Winter wren” along the Pacific coast in 2010. I noticed the change only today. First I resented it, but now I’m glad. Researchers at the University of British Columbia established our west coast bird as a separate species, Pacific wren, Troglodytes pacificus, a cryptospecies. “Crypto-“ means “concealed”. David Toews and Darren Irwin discovered a new bird, four million years old, hiding in plain sight. It appeared briefly in plain sight in this back yard this afternoon. A very small brown bird with a very stubby tail cocked up over its back probed for insects in the bark of the ornamental plum tree in dim November.

About 4:00 pm, sitting on the fire escape, I was hearing the deep river of homebound traffic from Fort Street beyond the condo blocks. A sound more immediate around me was rain on leaves. A few still hung on the Horse-chestnut tree, but most cast a soggy, tawny mat over the lawn and garden. Neighbourhood and family concerns have delayed my leaf raking and shredding.

I noticed motion low inside the thicket. Little birds shook thimbleberry stems. Glimpses of black hoods and white tail feathers disclosed juncos. A wren appeared on the plum trunk then disappeared down into the bushes. I got only one clear look, but it matched with the illustration in Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (1990). The citation read: “Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)” Consulting Birds of Victoria and Vicinity (1989), I found Winter wren listed as resident here, common year-round. The book advised:

“In winter, look and listen for it low down in thick, moist, damp woodlands of the city, but watch for it also in the garden if you have an overgrown corner with thick vegetation.”

Yes we do have such an overgrown corner – and I’m proud of it today for attracting a bird that demands deep cover.

I might be less proud if the Horse-chestnut leaves kill the lawn grass before I get around to shredding them. Emma, my companion in leaf raking, had some seizures last week. They were minor and brief but they rule out yard work at present for her. We look for exercise on less bumpy ground. Yet my biggest worry is not Emma or the leaves. This week the Greenspace Committee will host a North Jubilee Neighbourhood public meeting about parks. We hope to make something happen. Opposition may arise and I am sweating it.

Victoria is renewing the city’s Parks Master Plan. It will guide park development for the next twenty-five years. My friends and I want the long-term plan to include a park that will daylight Bowker Creek, free it someday from culvert, to meander across a corner of our neighbourhood. Political contention disturbs me. My determination disturbs the Neighbourhood Association board. Today on the fire escape my time of listening stillness brought not peace but a sense of the back yard as vibrant nigh to bursting, no more tranquil than the song of “Winter Wren” in John Neville’s Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast album (1999).

Compared to other little birds on the album, Winter wren sounds fraught. Notes stampede, full-tilt in fancy vocal tricks without melody. I don’t remember hearing it in the wild, yet I must have. Surely, many of those little birds sang in Haida Gwaii in spring some decades ago as I walked transects across a valley in ancient rainforest. I definitely sang. The Black bears of those islands are the world’s largest. I bellowed, tromped and whacked trees with a stick, hoping that bears would decide they didn’t want to meet me. Perhaps my racket put the wrens off their song.

I saw them. In fact Winter wren is the only bird I associate with those memorable walks deep in old-growth forest – almost the only animation. The place was too still for me, too quiet and dark – immense green gloom, taut with suspense. No sunlight penetrated the tree canopy. No breeze or weather. Moss blobs, shaped too much like bears, soaked-up all the noise I could make. Any time a tiny wren darted, perched, cocked up its tiny tail and scolded, I welcomed the event.

My task of walking across the valley had the purpose of evaluating trout and salmon habitat. A mining company wanted to excavate, and regulations required environmental assessment. A biological field technician, I stopped at each creek, recorded habitat information on data sheets and set minnow traps. Baiting each trap with a sticky glob of salmon roe left my hands aromatic with the favourite food of Black bears. As thoroughly as I tried to rinse my hands and seal and rinse the bait bag, I knew I still smelled edible to bears. But they did avoid me.

Those good old memories felt threatened today. I searched “Winter wren” on the internet and found the name replaced by “Pacific wren” for the BC coast. The grumpy-old-man lobe of my brain resented the change. I had known Winter wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, as holarctic. It had spanned the boreal of Europe, Asia and North America. My Celtic ancestors celebrated Wren at winter solstice as symbolic king of the old year.

Like the old king of the year past, my grumpy-old-man response needed killing and burying by new information from Dave Toews and Darren Irwin. I searched out their article, Cryptic speciation in a Holarctic passerine revealed by genetic and bioacoustic analysis (in Molecular Ecology, 2008). It supplied vital evidence that our Pacific coastal birds are a separate species, even though they look and behave so much like eastern Winter wrens. Toews and Irwin found a zone in northeastern BC, around Tumbler Ridge, where breeding ranges of western and eastern birds overlap. The study showed both occupying the same habitat, in which eastern and western males staked out neighbouring territories. Western males and females paired up; eastern males and females paired up; no mixing.

DNA analysis confirmed that ancestors of the eastern and western birds had parted ways more than four million years ago. The American Ornithologist’s Union responded by officially separating Winter wren into three species: Eurasian wren, Troglodytes troglodytes; Winter wren, T. hiemalis, of eastern and central North America; and our Pacific wren, T. pacificus.

So similar, why don’t Pacific and Winter wren interbred? The Toews and Irwin study suggests that song sorts out the species. The female finds her little, camouflaged mate by his song. Troglodytes pacificus sings in a generally higher frequency range than T. hiemalis, and changes his note more times per second. Even I can easily hear the difference. To my ear Winter wren sounds more melodious, rich, attractive, but my preference hardly matters.

Toews and Irwin also authored the Pacific Wren article at Cornell University’s Birds of North America website. Exploring it and other sources, I learn that deep rainforest, such as I walked in Haida Gwaii, is prime habitat for Pacific wren. For nesting they prefer old-growth, greater in age than 200 years. They favour intact forest blocks larger than twenty hectares (fifty acres), and prefer to nest deep within it, at least 100 metres from its edge. Dead, decaying and fallen trees of old forest provide a prime source of their insect food, and they often nest in woodpecker holes in rotting snags. They nest most abundantly along the many small streams that drain rainforest valleys, and frequently conceal their nests in rootballs of trees that fall in the wet ground of the riparian corridor. Where the trees fall, patches of bright daylight sprout dense undergrowth where the wrens find food. Pacific wren nests also beneath overhanging bank of the streams.

Research suggests that the web of life in rainforest valleys connects Pacific wren, salmon and bears. Mature salmon from the ocean ascend the streams in autumn to spawn and die. Bears feast on the salmon then fertilize the forest soil with their droppings and with fish carcasses they carry from the stream. The nutrients enrich the riparian (streamside) ecosystem, including its insect populations, which feed wrens. Nutrients quickly leach from rainforest soils, so the ecosystem needs its yearly salmon fertilizer.

Gardeners here in Bowker Valley recognize the same need for yearly fertilizing. Our climate is dryer than classic Pacific wren breeding habitat, but heavy rain in winter washes nourishment from our soil. Riparian forest ecosystem functioned for thousands of years along Bowker Creek. Pacific wren males sang in spring in old-growth habitat. Now none of it stands along the stream. Vancouver Island has lost about 90% of its ancient forest. Pacific wren populations appear to be decreasing. It fits a worldwide pattern. Varied reports indicate that about 40% of Earth’s bird species are in decline, with 8% already nearing extinction. The main cause is habitat destruction by humans. The planet has lost half its wildlife population since my class left high school, including 75% of animal life in freshwater ecosystems. Bowker Creek and Pacific wren are only snapshots from the big picture. Would Earth be better without humans, I wonder.

Troglodytes pacificus, fortunately, is fairly versatile in its habitat choice. North Jubilee neighbourhood thickets can provide cover and insects in the cold months, and our suet feeders contribute extra energy. Pacific wrens move to and through the city as winter pushes them down from the mountains and coastward from the BC interior. The bird in the back yard today could be a Victoria area resident or a short- or long-distance migrant. Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO) at the southern tip of the Island sees hundreds during fall migration, with highest numbers passing south in mid-October.

The RPBO website links to a report on Pacific wren behaviour that I found disturbing. Ann Nightingale and Ron Melcer Jr. authored the article in Western Birds (2013), Conspecific Nest Aggesssion of the Pacific Wren on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It provides a horrifying record of a prolonged attack by a Pacific wren female on the nest of another female. It made me think about who these little creatures are and who we are.

The nest was in a carport. Habitat was semi-rural and adjacent to a wooded corridor along a stream. The attacker was attempting to drag nestlings out and take over the nest. Both females may have been mates of the same male. Recent heavy rains, the authors conjecture, may have destroyed one female’s nest, leaving her in need of a drier site within her male’s territory. The account distressed me, perhaps because it could have been a human story. Polygyny, in which a male mates with more than one female, and infanticide among jealous, competing mothers occurs in humans. Polygyny probably served our species well for tens of thousands of years. Some evolutionary anthropologists assert that we began our shift to monogamy only a thousand years ago. Our economies and communities were expanding. Village-based culture was collapsing. Monogamy and the nuclear family provided better care and protection to infants in a more complex civilization. We have built monogamy into our morality. Today it offended me that Pacific wren doesn’t observe the social code in which we humans invest so much effort.

Ridiculous, but it points to the new capacity that Earth labours to develop through the human. Pacific wren behaviour is more strictly bound to genetic coding. Humans can use concepts to evolve personal behaviour and to unify civilizations. I am offering my personal answer to the question: Would Earth be better without humans? The planet tends not to throw away new capacities, but to fit them in. By the human, Earth now learns to see itself as a whole, to know itself and its universe. It’s not about us, just the capacity we carry. The concept of justice for all life evolves in us now.

17. Junco hyemalis


October 3, 2016

 We banded juncos fifty years ago in our Biology teacher’s back yard in Massachusetts. On the data sheets we printed “Slate-colored junco”. Darkest of the sparrows on the lawn under Mr. Sanborn’s feeders, they flashed white outer tail feathers when they flew.

That tail flash of white identified juncos to me when I came home to the West Coast. Otherwise they looked different here. Not slate-coloured, the western birds were more brown-backed and buff–sided. Males wore a hangman’s hood of black over head and chest. My bird book from the 1960s listed them as “Oregon junco”, a species separate from “Slate-colored”.

This afternoon a little brown bird with a bold black hood visited the back yard. It bathed on the stump in the wide, earthenware dish that Holly made at art school. Listen to the junco. His monotonous clicking tells great life stories, varied and revelatory.

Science has changed his name. In the ‘70s the American Ornithologists’ Union gathered Oregon, Slate-colored and other junco species into one: “Dark-eyed”, Junco hyemalis. Dark-eyed junco includes all races that breed in arctic and temperate North America, perhaps 360 million birds. Its summer and winter ranges encompass almost all Canada and the US. In British Columbia, Dark-eyed junco is our most common sparrow. The term “Oregon junco” now applies to a group of five western subspecies, all wearing the black hood.

The Oregon junco races look so much alike that I wouldn’t attempt to discriminate one from another at the birdbath. Today I probably saw our local resident Shufeldt’s, Junco hyemalis [shufeldti]. But possibly I saw subspecies oreganus. It breeds north of here from BC’s central coast to the Alaska panhandle. Junco hyemalis [oreganus] migrates down the Island on its way to coastal California in the fall. It must visit Bowker Valley.

Shufeldt’s, common year-round, connects this valley with alpine forest, distant coastline, and surprising evolutionary journeys. I haven’t noticed any juncos around the Meeting House over the summer. Their numbers increase here through autumn as colder weather pushes them down from the mountains. Many nested at high elevation near treeline and foraged in alpine meadow. Others nested in dense conifer forest and fed in logging clearcuts. By December and January Victoria will host ten times our summer population. Most will be adult males with the black hoods. Many female and immature birds will cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward milder weather in Washington, possibly Oregon. Walking a country road with Sherryll I will hear sharp clicks from a blackberry thicket where a junco flock forages.

The click is the contact call among flock members. It sounds to me like the crack of a spark that arcs between live wires, similar to Anna’s hummingbird sparks but higher voltage. Not birds, but horse-chestnuts produced the back yard’s loudest cracks today. The season is fall. Nuts crash down through leaves to smack the fire escape and roll on its wooden deck. A spiny husk grazed the back of my neck.

Emma and I wear hats when we gather horse-chestnuts on the lawn. For a tottery old lady it’s not safe, but gathering nuts is a job she can still do. Sherryll’s mom has not been easy to get along with recently. She hates losing abilities. Even drying the dishes becomes too confusing. But pushing her walker on the lawn while I bring handfuls of horse-chestnuts to drop into the cardboard box on the walker’s seat makes her happy. Moments of great sweetness perch briefly – also moments of alarm when I see Emma bend to the ground to pick up a nut. So far she has not fallen. A nut beaned her. It startled her and scared me, but she smiled and shrugged it off. Having worked in orchards longer than I have lived, she was not alarmed by a nut on the head.

Fuller, I try to keep out from under the horse-chestnut tree. At seventeen months he might be hurt by a heavy, spikey nut. But at seventeen months he doesn’t retain the concept and he’s always moving. He wanted my attention one day and was getting it by pulling the nut box off the seat of Emma’s walker. When he wouldn’t quit I grabbed his shoulders and jolted him, mostly with my sharp voice and angry face. After a moment of shock he burst into tears. Emma immediately bent down and scooped him up. I was horrified, not only at myself for frightening my little friend, but also at the danger of Emma and Fuller both crashing to the ground. Lifting the crying child reached beyond Emma’s capacities of balance and strength. But she did. And I was able, gently, to get Fuller down onto his own feet. It comforted me to see him quickly revert to his effervescent, high-velocity self, but I regret my eruption of exasperation.

It wasn’t just about Fuller. Neighbourhood politics frustrates and upsets me. Warring factions at the community garden, several blocks from here, refuse to seek happy common ground. Their differences predate my involvement and will persist beyond it. My unwitting contribution so far is to lead a coup at the Spirit Garden, to help one group of nice, community-spirited neighbours oust the other group of nice, community-spirited neighbours. And I have laboured energetically to clear away junco habitat.

Juncos need densely bushy havens for quick retreat and for nesting. They forage on the ground in the open, but frequently dart into shrubbery thick enough to deter predators. They also nest there on the ground. At the Spirit Garden I have cleared underbrush away and helped to chase off the gardeners who would protect it.

My task at the Spirit Garden is to get a grant from the City so we can resurface the public path. Shrubbery has crowded close to the path such that it has felt unsafe to some walkers and joggers. Drug users and homeless people have concealed themselves in it. Our application form for the City grant promises to make the path feel safer, opening clear lines of sight and eliminating places where people could hide. Most neighbours favour the changes. Will some neighbours wonder someday why fewer little birds animate the garden?

Beneath the Spirit Garden path, Bowker Creek flows in a culvert. In the 1990s neighbourhood gardeners transformed a corridor of debris-strewn wasteland where culvert crossed under a residential block. Sometime this century, the City may lift the creek up into daylight and make a park around it. I long for that day, but my work in the Spirit Garden may delay it. As I help to renew the path and garden and to rebuild its community of support, the City has less need to intervene and change things. In my role with the Neighbourhood Association, I sometimes work diligently against my own profound yearnings. My notes from today’s back yard time end with the words: “This is intensely peaceful and almost deafeningly vibrant at the same time, but I am not much at peace.”

In Bowker Valley, the Junco breeding spot I have noticed is the University of Victoria campus. I visited there by early-morning bus this summer to listen to birds at the source of Bowker Creek. UVic sits atop an aquifer that feeds the stream. When glacier melted from the valley 15,000 years ago it left us a ridge of sand and gravel, a drumlin, more than 700 hectares (1800 acres) in extent. The ridge holds onto water in the spaces between sand grains and pebbles. Rain falls on UVic and Gordon Head neighbourhood all winter, soaks into the ground and recharges the aquifer. Water continually percolates out the sides of the ridge all through our dry summer months. It gathers into pond and wetland, and makes Bowker Creek the year-round stream that supported human and salmon populations for millennia. Springwater seeps forth relatively warm in winter and cool in summer – just right for salmon and trout.

Arriving at UVic on the bus, standing in the bus loop, I immediately heard birdsong, lusty and melodious. The newly-planted trees that dotted the campus some decades ago when Sherryll studied there, have grown to mature beauty. But I could not spot the singer up in those trees. He was much closer. A White-crowned sparrow sat proclaiming atop a smaller tree in the rain garden in the middle of the bus loop. UVic uses rain gardens to send water down into the aquifer gravel. Rain falls on the bus loop pavement and drains into a sunken garden that holds water as it sinks into the ground. I admire UVic’s efforts in caring for Bowker Creek.

The other loud bird at the bus loop sang less melodiously from a mature pine. A junco’s monotone trill persistently repeated. I heard it answered by two birds farther away. Males were countersinging, each from his own nesting territory. A listening stroll across campus indicated many territories. University campuses attract juncos. They adapt comfortably to the crowds of people and find creative solutions for safe nesting. Holly, who lives in UVic’s family housing, found juncos nesting in the hanging flower basket beside her front door. At another university campus, in California, scientists intensely study the resident junco population. It appeared there in the 1980s and has evolved.

 Before the ‘80s no juncos stayed in summer to breed at the University of California San Diego. The local subspecies, Thurber’s, had always departed from the coastal campus to nest high in the mountains. About seventy pairs now summer at UCSD, and they have changed much in three decades. Wings and tails are shorter. Tails have less white, and heads less black. Males share more parental duties at the nest. The UCSD birds are less nervous around people and more curious in exploring their habitat. They sing at a higher pitch, above the roar of buildings and vehicles. Studies suggest that the changes have progressed by classic evolutionary processes of natural selection.

Amounts of white on the tail and of black on the head indicate levels of dominance. The markings relate to intensity of male aggression. Junco evolution on the San Diego campus has toned-down belligerence. Decreasing aggression apparently favours survival in the new habitat. Researchers note that a junco pair at UCSD can raise three or four broods, as opposed to one in the mountains. The coastal population directs more male energy into feeding fast-growing nestlings. Researchers point out also that campus territories are larger than those in mountain forest. Amid buildings and pavement, junco population is less dense. Clearer lines of sight allow males to see each other farther away. Quarrelsome, strongly-marked males might waste their energy chasing each other around large territories. New habitats demand different standards of aggression.

Humans occupy a new global habitat now. Our traditional pioneer belligerence no longer prospers us here. We evolve culturally toward finer-tuned cooperation among people and with life systems that support us. Admittedly, I don’t see it manifested at the Spirit Garden much. Must be a work-in-progress. But the junco at the birdbath tells me we can evolve much more quickly than we knew and find our fit in a new era.

North American juncos evolve faster than anybody imagined birds could. DNA analysis indicates that Dark-eyed junco emerged suddenly after the most recent ice age. It split off 10,000 years ago from Yellow-eyed juncos of Mexico and Central America. Glacier retreated and warmer climate filled our continent with varied new habitats. A starburst of new Dark-eyed junco races differentiated to occupy them. Several of those races may already have evolved into separate species. Science is tending toward that view. New editions of bird books might soon list “Oregon junco” again on a separate page from “Slate-colored”.

16. Zonotrichia atricapilla


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?