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?

15. Colaptes auratus

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September 14, 2016

Sitting on the fire escape this morning I listened and entered the quiet there, inside the city noise. With vacuum cleaner drone and child’s harmonica blast from apartments, and garden equipment rip from a condominium block, I noted that, “…it would take a fairly robust bird voice to register over the machinery.” But a flicker’s “klee-yer” did cut through. I followed it across the park and down the lane. On the ground under a pine tree a big grey bird hammered a hole in the ground with her woodpecker bill. Her necklace (a crescent of black on the chest) and her black-speckled underparts confirmed Northern flicker, Colaptes auratus. I use the pronoun “her” because I saw no scarlet moustache.

Watching a flicker has sometimes a numinous quality for me – a magic, mystical or spiritual feeling. And what a striking bold beauty! Our Pacific Northwest subspecies is the “red-shafted” Colaptes auratus cafer. Red-shafted refers to the sockeye salmon hue of wings and tail that flight reveals. Standing on the ground Northern flicker displays its prominent black necklace, tailband and speckles against its gentle greys and browns.

That special numinous quality for me developed in the 1970s. I was researching an essay about salmon streams that once chuckled where the city of Vancouver now roars. In the archives I found a memoir by Chief August Jack Khatsalano, a charismatic and deeply cultured resident of early Vancouver. His family had lived there from before the city. Chief Khatsalano remembered their homes and village sites. I visited Jericho Beach Park, looking for any trace of a feast house his grandfather built. The memoir recounts that as a boy August Jack saw two old doctors there, the last living of eight renowned medicine men, shamanic healers of his grandfather’s era.

I think I found the right spot in Jericho Beach Park, but no trace of the feast house. A mountain ash tree stood there now, in Vancouver’s dull winter, bright with red berries. Feeding on them, two big grey birds swayed under frail branches. I glimpsed a red stripe across a cheek, a broad black necklace on a grey chest, and the mandarin lining of a wide-fanned tail. Flickers. Then starlings hit the mountain ash, screeching dozens of them. The scene was red berries and swarming black bodies. Then just the black. When they swarmed off, a few berries and two grey birds remained. Those flickers, in my heart, were the two old doctors that August Jack had seen almost a century before. Flickers began to represent, for me, the Elders, the spirit of place, the accumulating wisdom of community and ecosystem to which one might turn for guidance.

So I was glad to hear a flicker across Fern Street Park this morning. I haven’t noticed them here all summer. We will hear more as autumn progresses. The literature describes our red-shafted subspecies as short-distance migrants. Summer finds Colaptes auratus cafer breeding eastward in British Columbia as far as the Rockies. When winter threatens to cover the ground there with snow, they move west and south. The food they mainly seek is ants, which are most available from bare ground. The bird under the pine tree this morning was most likely eating ants, flicking her long, barbed tongue out to collect them.

Our winters around Victoria produce little snow. Flickers may easily excavate for insects here. Fruits from bushes and trees augment the diet. In the back yard we see flickers feeding on red-osier dogwood berries and elderberries in autumn. In the front yard we see them on the holly tree in late winter after frost sweetens the berries and starts them fermenting. Flickers that breed around Victoria need not migrate south in winter, and birds from the freezing interior of the province join them here. Red-shafted flickers that nest around Riske Creek, for example, in the Chilcoten ranchlands, winter in Victoria and as far south as Sacramento.

Riske Creek flickers contribute much to our understanding of the species. Karen Wiebe, a professor from the University of Saskatchewan, has led summer fieldwork at Riske Creek for two decades. Scientific papers on Colaptes auratus have poured forth. We have recently learned from Riske Creek flickers, for example, that the black necklace on the bird I saw this morning communicates. Last year (2015) The Auk published an article, Melanin plumage ornaments in both sexes of Northern Flicker are associated with body condition and predict reproductive output independent of age.

Flickers’ prominent black markings speak to other flickers in breeding season. They inform about a bird’s maturity and physical condition. Prospective mates notice the size of those ornaments, and the blackness. A female’s necklace might be at its widest and blackest on a healthy bird in her third year. The healthiest male in at least his second year might display the widest black tailband. How black is black? A bird in the best physical condition is able to most densely pigment its ornament feathers with melanin. I might not notice the difference. A good clothes shopper or a breeding flicker would though. Sherryll has often pointed out to me the brown-ness or blue-ness of garments that I called black. In the study at Riske Creek the investigators used a spectrometer to measure the blackness of black.

It appeared that females displaying necklaces most dense with melanin pigment most attracted the opposite sex. Likewise males with the widest tailbands. When those two paired, they brought the greatest number of chicks safe through all the hazards of the nest to successfully fledge out. Thus the female I watched this morning spoke vital truth in her necklace. Wellbeing of the population depends on it.

The Riske Creek researchers also measured the mustache of males.  They concluded that in Colaptes auratus cafer the red stripe behind the bill, or lack of it, functions mainly to announce maleness or femaleness. The sexes look otherwise similar. Some basic sorting statement is required. But not all mustaches are red at Riske Creek. Many are black, a characteristic of Yellow-shafted flickers, Colaptes auratus aurates. Breeding range of the two Northern flicker subspecies overlaps there. Hybrids result. In autumn the hybrids migrate mainly west and south with the Red-shafted population. So in Victoria in winter we see varied combinations of cafer and aurates markings. The Red-shafted race shows red-orange flight feathers, mid-grey head and face, and the red mustache in males. Yellow-shafted flickers exhibit flight feathers of custardy-rich yellow; the face is cinnamon-beige, with the black mustache in males; the back of the head is grey, with a red crescent. Hybrids carry any blend of the above. Victoria birders see them all.

Hybrid flickers surprised John James Audubon in 1843. Audubon had journeyed through aurates range – he called them Golden-winged woodpeckers – up the Missouri River toward its headwaters in the Rockies.  Around the confluence with Yellowstone River he observed a group of five flickers that varied remarkably in colour. Individuals in the group had flight feathers ranging from yellow to red, including in-between salmony pink. He predicted that they would “puzzle all the naturalists in the world.” And indeed hosts of naturalists have studied hybrid flickers ever since.

Between ranges of Red- and Yellow-shafted flickers, a zone of hybridization extends thousands of kilometers. It roughly traces the Continental Divide from Alaska to New Mexico. The range of Yellow-shafted aurates extends vastly east and north to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and to arctic treeline. Red-shafted cafer flickers range west and south to the Pacific coast and Central America. Science generally suggests that the two subspecies and their east-west split stem from the most recent ice age. Prior to it, a single race of Northern flicker may have ranged in forest from Atlantic to Pacific.

The Wisconsin glaciation spread ice over the northern half of North America, starting around 75,000 years ago. South of the ice, climate pushed forest east and west toward the coasts. Between Atlantic and Pacific forest, it created cold desert, treeless, uncongenial to flickers. Eastern and western populations, physically separated, may have evolved then into Red- and Yellow-shafted races. They metabolized carotenoids differently.

Flickers get their reds and yellows from carotenoid pigments in their food. Exoskeletons of ants and other bugs provide the pigments, as do berries. Flickers in captivity can get carotenoids from carrots and peppers. DNA of the cafer race directs enzymes to oxygenate some of those pigments in the flight feathers. It makes the cafers’ feathers more red-shafted.

Around 15,000 years ago, climate warmed; ice melted; forest expanded; treeline extended north. Ranges of Red- and Yellow-shafted flickers spread north and inland. I’m guessing that 12,000 years ago on this Fern Street hillside a Red-shafted pair hollowed out a nest in a lodgepole pine, as bison grazed. I’m guessing that the colder centuries between 11,400 and 10,900 years ago repelled flickers from the Island, but that they returned soon afterward. Flicker calls have no doubt pierced Bowker Valley stillness for the past 10,000 years. Science suggests that the expanding ranges of cafer and aurates met at least 7000 years ago. The hybrid zone may have held fairly stable for the past 4000 years.

 In BC the Northern flicker is our most common woodpecker. Wherever trees stand, they gouge out nest holes. Across North America flickers total almost ten million. And they provide nests for many millions of other birds. At Riske Creek a study found that flickers generally didn’t reuse their nest holes in subsequent years. Other species more often occupied them: European starling, Mountain bluebird, Tree swallow, American kestrel, Red squirrel, Bufflehead. Wildlife managers term Northern flicker and other woodpeckers “keystone” species. Their nest-hole-making plays a vital role in forest ecosystems. Wood ducks, small owls and hawks, wrens, swifts and swallows depend on them.

Flicker nest-making depends on decaying trees. The bird does not tunnel into living solid wood, but into punky wood. Ecologically, the most valuable tree in a forest or in this neighbourhood may be a snag, crumbling and riddled with woodpecker holes. We too quickly remove dead wood. Decay, generally we under-appreciate. I hope we are evolving culturally to see beauty in rotting trees, and in trees with dead tops. In the world I want for my grandson, Northern flickers continue to be a common wonder.

They have helped me. In the early 1980s in early autumn I visited Jericho Beach Park again, where I had watched the two Red-shafted flickers feeding on mountain ash berries. My 1970s life, its marriage and career, was no more. Proceeds from selling our house had supported me for several months. They had dwindled and I had sold my MG. That morning I was feeling lost enough perhaps to open to new direction. I appealed to the Elders. Had anyone cared to observe, they would have seen a young man stand looking at a mountain ash tree for a long time, then, within a circle of cedar trees, walk slowly round and round and round. As I walked, my appeal to the Elders settled gradually within me to an exceptionally deep level of sincerity.

Leaving the park, I bought a newspaper. On the bus home I opened the help-wanted ads. I needed a job. One ad invited me to drive school busses for children with special needs. I applied and from that year bussing children with disabilities, a complete life has welcomed me. One of the other drivers was Sherryll; one of the schools let me volunteer between shifts; one of its teachers steered me toward a vocation in education with students with multiple severe disabilities. School District #61, Greater Victoria, offered me a job here.

I would honour now the Elders. The flicker under the pine tree says: “Human mind is not for making you special; it’s for serving Earth’s becoming.”

14. Sturnus vulgaris

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September 12, 2016

The starling’s right eye, uniformly black, watches me. He assesses, I imagine, the level of threat I might pose. “Any closer and I’m out of here”, I read in his posture. I agree, this view is too close for my comfort as well. Larger than life-size, on the left hand page of a magazine on the kitchen table, the head and shoulder study of an adult male starling in breeding plumage alarms me. Its caption credits Ervio Sian with the photo. I see a glossy black bird with oily sheen of green and violet iridescence on his throat hackle feathers. His face points into a Roman-thrusting-sword bill, strong and sharp. Yellow, the bill fades at its base to pearly blue-grey. I see no pretty bird; the creature looks dangerous, alien, ancient.

On the magazine’s opposite page, eyes are smiling at me. They invite me to sit down and smoke a “Matinee. Comfortingly mild” at the table in the pleasant kitchen with the pretty homemaker who has just now burned a pan of Yorkshire puddings. The full-page cigarette add gives away the magazine’s age. Water stain at the bottom of the page reminds me of the fire in the bookshelf upstairs several years ago. The Westworld, November-December 1976, is a keepsake. The title at the top of the left-hand page:

“Starlings

Sternus vulgaris is an infuriating mimic who can imitate over sixty North American birds as well as cats, frogs and lawnmowers; it also seems to imitate us in the way it has settled the land.

“By Gerald Harris”

The starling essay in those brittle old pages still appeals to my ear and reading taste. I wonder again why I so quickly put away the possibility of nature writing as a career. Selling my magazine articles proved easy in Vancouver in the 1970s. But my true calling, I assured myself at the time, was higher than mere journalism. I converted the material about starlings into a long poem that nobody wanted. Wresting a living from writing, I have suspected since, competing in that tough business, felt too scary, not what I imagined or needed writing to be.

Starlings visited Fern Street Park this morning. The first little flock I have noticed here this summer landed in a Douglas fir. Their fall-and-winter plumage made them easy to recognize. I observed black, short-tailed birds covered with many white speckles, pulling seeds out of the fir cones.

Where have they been all summer, I wondered? I had thought of them as a most-common city resident. My Birds of Victoria and Vicinity (1989) would assure me that “This stubby black bird is a familiar sight in the city a truly urban bird that is here year-round.” Now I wondered: could starlings be fading away in Victoria?

Even in 1976 they had passed their population peak on the coast. The Westworld magazine article gives a Vancouver slant on the starling invasion story. It began in New York City in 1890 when “…Eugene Schieffelin sowed the air of Central Park with the ancestors of all North American starlings…. Schieffelin, a wealthy New York drug manufacturer, [hadn’t seen] many birds in his city, and [had] concluded that North America was short of birds. He also thought it lacked culture. So he [had] attacked both problems at once by importing all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare.” My writing in 1976 sounds to me now a bit flippant possibly.

It also reflects my mother’s writing interest in British Columbia’s colonial history: “Following the route of the Nor’wester Alexander Mackenzie, [starlings] probably journeyed up the Peace River from Alberta into BC, down the Fraser through the Cariboo country, then overland to the saltchuck at Bella Coola in 1947.” In the summer of 1948, birdwatchers first observed Sternus vulgaris near Vancouver in the Fraser valley. The Westworld article continues:

“It was Fraser delta blueberry farmers who first brought the new arrivals to public attention, with shotguns, in 1965. Until then, unnoticed by most of us, Vancouver’s starling population had been building up at an astonishing rate. From a winter census of five in December 1952, the count had soared by the 1964 census to almost 200,000. So in the summer of 1965 Vancouver heard sounds of battle over the delta as starling hordes plundered blueberry fields of an estimated $62,000 worth of berries.”

“… that winter, January 1966,… a newspaper reported 500,000 in Vancouver roosts – with Cambie Bridge alone hosting over 150,000…. The head of Vancouver bridge maintenance warned that ten million would soon crowd False Creek and other Vancouver roosts.

“…. starling numbers never reached ten million, nor even one million. The 1966 [December] census tallied only about 250,000. And no count since has exceeded 100,000.”

For a few decades I haven’t paid much attention to starling populations. Now I search recent news headlines and see that Fraser valley blueberry growers continue to combat them: ‘Trap and kill’ starlings program approved in Abbotsford. I see that the British Columbia Blueberry Council commissioned a report in 2010, an Investigation of Starling Populations in British Columbia, from wildlife ecologist Douglas Ransome. He concludes that we now see only one tenth the number of starlings in winter as at their peak in 1966. Breeding populations declined, Dr. Ransome asserts, until 2003, then possibly stabilized. So it’s true; we do see fewer starlings these days.

Increasing explosively, declining dramatically, then leveling-off, Sturnus vulgaris has traced a pattern common to wildlife species that invade new territories. The invaders take local ecosystems by surprise and have everything their own way at first. Local creatures require some decades to fully adapt to the new member of their community. Predators, competitors, parasites, diseases, prey species and blueberry farmers respond. In Victoria, for example, researchers noted that numbers of city-dwelling Coopers hawks had increased, and wondered what they ate. The resulting study, entitled Introduced Species Dominate the Diet of Urban Cooper’s Hawks in British Columbia (Wilson’s Journal, 2012), reveals that about 30% of a hawk’s diet in this city is Sternus vulgaris.

Starlings are not disappearing from Victoria. Our Natural History Society still lists them as common year-round in southeastern Vancouver Island. Here in the Jubilee neighbourhood, close to the urban core, sightings increase at this time of year as birds assume their fall and winter patterns of feeding, flocking and roosting.

For spring and summer breeding season they prefer to find a nest cavity adjacent to pastureland, and to remain there feeding steadily on invertebrates from the sod. The stabbing-sword bill of Sternus vulgaris evolved mainly for foraging bugs in the ground. It probes deep, then pries open for searching. The bird’s digestive system derives twice the food value from insects as from vegetable foods; nestlings depend fully on invertebrates. In breeding season, we would see starlings mostly on cattle-grazing lands and cultivated fields farther up the Saanich peninsula.

Late in summer the birds’ digestive system physically changes. The gizzard enlarges; the gut lengthens, and starlings can more efficiently digest plant foods. By now, September, they join into larger flocks and seek an omnivore’s diet over a wider area, perhaps forty square kilometers. The city offers autumn attractions of warm communal roosting sites and human food scraps.

“Hey! Look here!”, the black bird on the left-hand page demands. “First, I’m not black. OK? You can’t imagine my colour. Look at the science. Your eyes lack UV light receptors. Your brain lacks hues for that entire range of wavelengths. My colour doesn’t talk to you; it talks to other starlings. It says what a healthy bird I am, desirable mate, strong defender. Ripe blueberries are not dark blue. OK? Ripe seed cones are not plain brown. You can’t imagine their colours. Those plants are not talking to you. Their colours call me down from the sky to eat their fruits and spread their seeds. Trees and bushes learned to use UV light to talk to little birds a million years before your species appeared.”

“My long throat hackle feathers are not talking to you. They carry information vital to lady starlings. So do my songs and the mimicry that so amuses you. Every year I grow my hackles and my songs longer, and learn new sounds. Look at your science. Starling mortality rate: 50% per year. If I can keep growing my hackles and expanding my vocal repertoire for five years, ten, twenty, they declare my intelligence, the good choices I make day-after-day, year-after-year to survive so long. Females value the information; DNA that encodes such capacity for wisdom is worth much to us.”

“I’m answering your question. Do you remember your question? You stood beside your car years ago and watched our murmuration – in the Fraser valley – in autumn – remember? Hundreds of us flocked above farmland. Sherryll watched with you, and you said, ‘I wonder what they’re spelling.’”

I do remember, yes. I was joking, but the shapes you starlings made in the air captivated me. The flock, the murmuration, kept changing formation with such harmony, so fluidly that I imagined you writing messages in the air in some script I longed to understand, three-dimensional flying longhand, composed from tiny dots with wings.

“OK. It was a good question. Your science helps me answer. Murmuration is how we talk about big things. The shapes the flock forms is the discussion. It helps me make my good choices: where and when to feed and roost. And it keeps me safe. We need to communicate in the air while we travel. Hawks up there try to pick us off. Our close-formation flight confuses them. A hawk needs to single out one starling and go for it. But we fly in such unity that the hawk sees a big moving blob that keeps changing. Individual birds vanish into it. The physicists and aerospace engineers say that I continually track the seven closest starlings around me and constantly adjust my position in relation to all of them.

“But I’m one bird. I bring my own life experience to the murmuration, my knowledge of the territory from yesterday and from years ago. I dive toward a crop or a roost, and my motion sends information into the flock. Birds nearby move with me a little bit or a lot, diminishing or amplifying my assertion within the forum. I pull back in or separate out. Groups of us leave; other groups join; the discussion carries on.”

Lovely. Yes. I admire your mumuration’s elegant interplay of individual and community knowing and action. And now I understand your longhand; I read its message to me:

“Truth is known by its survival value. Thoughts that assist in making good choices are true. Experience proves-out ideas constructive to wellbeing. They become truth for me as individual, community, species, for me as planet. My evolution selects for truth.”

The swirl of moving dots in the air writes:

“Earth life is intrinsically disposed toward consciousness. Define consciousness as capacity for action based on information. In bacteria it appears rather rudimentary, but in starlings, brilliantly expressed. The present disruptive moment in the life of the planet, when consciousness looks at itself, is called humanity.”

The starling’s right eye looks at me from the magazine page. Evolution has equipped his right eye primarily to receive information about the position and motion of things. His left eye receives information predominantly about colours. My colour doesn’t interest him; I’m neither a ripening berry nor a territorial rival. My motion interests him. He views me as potential hazard. I do too. When I turn toward myself my eye of Earth evolving, I see peril. As Earth this moment scares me. This new emerging capacity of mine, the human, my capacity for self-reflection, could go so wrong. I love it, but I hope it proves true.

13. Thryomanes Bewickii

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September 8, 2016

Fern Street is Bewick’s wren territory. With bravura, as long as I have lived here, males have sung in plain view on treetops. But I haven’t noticed. Thryomanes Bewickii has foraged underbrush, calling out harsh and sharp at the neighbour’s cat. How disconcerting to learn of the bird now. It cracks a self-image I would prefer to maintain, of knowing about nature in the city. Now I consult my books. Birds of Victoria and Vicinity uses capital letters: “THIS IS THE MOST COMMON back yard wren of Victoria.” I search online. Val Schaefer says: “Here in James Bay, Victoria, BC Canada, our ‘signature bird’ may be the Bewick’s Wren.” That’s the problem with old, cherished self-image; you have to keep it in a climate-controlled room. Let fresh air in and it crumbles to dust.

Listening early in the morning on the fire escape lets in fresh air. This week a bold bird voice came from Fern Street Park, from the trees across the field. That was awkward. It meant walking down the field beneath all the apartment and condominium balconies in pajamas and robe on dewy grass in wet slippers to peer with binoculars into someone’s back yard. A little bird sang strongly at the top of a fruit tree.

It sat upright, more like a flycatcher than a warbler, I thought. It sat and sat and sang and sang, giving me time to study. Its tail appeared longer than a warbler’s; its beak also longer, and curved. Wings looked plain and dark; under-parts plain and light. I noted a possible light eye-stripe. I looked-up flycatchers in my field guide and in a local checklist. A few flycatchers are common in Victoria; I listened on my phone to recordings of their songs. None really matched with the bird at the top of the fruit tree. It sat and sat and sang and sang. It cocked up its tail like a wren. I looked-up wrens in the field guide. Bewick’s wren! The songs in Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast did not really match, but the narrator mentioned that “Bewick’s wren make a variety of perky songs and calls.”

“Variety” perhaps understates. The Birds of North America website reports that a male may sing more than twenty different songs from many high perches in its territory. He repeats each song more than twenty times before changing tune. A graduate student may follow the wren the entire morning to record all his songs. Nor are they exactly like his neighbours’. A young wren, first claiming a territory, learns to sing by imitating the males around him, but may err slightly in his copy. Next year’s young males will imitate his error. Dialects evolve, local and regional. Isolated populations develop distinctive dialects. The bird on the fruit tree probably sang in southeastern-Vancouver-Island-ese. Ocean isolates our Bewick’s wrens.

Crossings between distant islands would daunt our Thryomanes Bewickii. They don’t migrate. The Birds of British Columbia, Vol. 3 (1997) finds no evidence of Bewick’s wren migration in BC. They barely disperse. A study in Oregon showed juvenile males relocating only about one kilometer from home, staking a territory the same year, and defending it permanently. The territories covered only about two hectares (4-5 acres) of thick, shrubby vegetation. Even in sparse habitat, such as this urban neighbourhood, territories might cover only four hectares. The Oregon birds didn’t fly far. Their longest flight might cross a couple of acres, carrying bugs home to nestlings or chasing out an intruding wren. Most flights darted between patches of dense cover, less than twelve meters.

Its stay-at-home habits cause Bewick’s wren to evolve local races. Across the bird’s range from here to Mexico, science currently recognizes sixteen subspecies. Our Vancouver Island wrens belong to subspecies calophonus along with birds of western Washington and Oregon. It seems likely that Thryomanes Bewickii calophonus originally expanded here from Oregon and Washington during a time when warming climate was enlarging their habitat northward. The male that sang from the fruit tree across the park could probably claim ancient ancestry on Vancouver Island.

Its territory might include this entire city block. Aware now of Bewick’s wrens, I have noticed one singing in the front yard from the top of the holly tree and foraging low in the native plant area underbrush. The native plant thicket stacks-up not-badly as habitat. The heart of Thryomanes Bewickii country is dry scrub and chaparral of the US Southwest. Salish Sea coast provides the northwestern extreme of the species’ range. We have dry-enough summers, mild-enough winters and dense understory vegetation. We also have, in the words of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, “anthropogenic landscapes,” shaped-by-people landscapes. Bewick’s wren has little problem with human presence in its territory. The Birds of British Columbia cites a study that found almost 80% of Bewick’s nests in back yards, on farms or in gardens. Almost half of the nests were in sheds, garages and barns. Nest sites included: “pockets or sleeves of clothing left hanging in abandoned buildings, garage drawers and cupboards left slightly ajar, behind a frying pan hanging on a post…[and inside] a paper bag half filled with nails.” As long as my gardening avoids neat-and-tidiness and allows insect abundance, Bewick’s wren welcomes me to its ancestral lands.

How ancestral? Little brown stay-at-home bird, when did you cross to this island from the mainland? How? Such questions allow fresh air gusting into my self-image vault in a swirl of plaster flakes. I have been happy with my picture of this hillside, valley and creek over the past 15,000 years: Glacier departs; land soon rises from the sea; creek flows down the valley; between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago life rushes in – salmon, willow, warbler, people in boats. I would prefer to maintain my illusion of knowing what I am talking about, but these bird questions make me consult people who know vastly more than I do. I went on a walk led by Grant Keddie.

Grant has served for decades as curator of archaeology at the BC Provincial Museum. Evenings and weekends, he has explored locally for hints of our deep history. He tells of recovering a bison tooth from the trench for a sewer line on Haultain Street. If I understand it correctly, Grant Keddie’s picture of this valley’s past includes a period around 12,000 years ago, dry and cold, of grasslands and of lodgepole pines in open forest, of bison herds (gigantic Bison antiquus, now extinct). The picture does not look to me like year-round habitat for Thryomanes Bewickii. I see landscape more like present-day northern BC, east of the Rockies. Winters here 12,000 year ago look too harsh for Bewick’s wren.

On this Fern Street hillside 12,000 years ago we probably hunted the bison and other large mammals. A backhoe on Orcas Island recently uncovered bones of Bison antiquus bearing marks of our stone cleavers and choppers. Orcas Island is only forty kilometers from here. Archeologists believe that hunters butchered the animal on the ice of a frozen pond approximately 13,500 years ago. Falling sea level in that era was converting enough seabed into dry land that the big animals could cross to Vancouver Island, maybe by 12,500 years ago. Their nomadic hunters would follow them. Did the buffalo hunters encounter any people already living here? How did we humans negotiate that meeting? I wonder.

I could not absorb all the information from the walk with Grant Keddie. I took home confusing scribbled notes and the impression of several big shifts in climate, vegetation, animal and human populations. He mentioned that he hopes to work with Richard Hebda, the Provincial Museum’s curator of botany and earth history, to write our local story since the most recent ice age. I need that article now.

New local discoveries about our distant past are emerging in this century, and particularly in this decade. In Bowker Valley it helps that we sit physically between the BC Provincial Museum and the University of Victoria. Scientists of various disciplines wonder and share information about this region where they live. Master of Science candidates select local topics for their thesis research – Kristen Rhea Miskelly, for example, Vegetation and climate history of the Fraser Glaciation on southeastern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada (2012). Miskelly’s thesis proposes an ice-age refugium for plants and animals on southeastern Vancouver Island. Much land in the hills west of Victoria may have stayed both above water and free of ice throughout the Fraser Glaciation. Grant Keddie suspects increasingly that elk and other large mammals survived on the Island throughout the ice age. He hopes to prove it.

Searching for a truer picture of this hillside, valley and creek since ice departed and land rose from the sea, the most helpful article I have found is Richard Hebda’s Biodiversity: Geological History in British Columbia (2007). My impression from Hebda is that the dry, cold era of lodgepole pine open forest and grassland extended through the valley’s first 3,000 years – approximately from 14,500 to 11,500 years ago. Sudden, severe cooling ended the bison era about 11,400 years BP (Before Present). Deep winter freezing during five cold centuries broke down our grassland and pine forest ecosystems. Shrubby, stunted alder may have colonized. I wonder which large mammals remained in our valley. Which died out, moved out or moved in? Did people follow them? Certainly I don’t see Thryomanes Bewickii here during that cold period – but I see them arrive soon after.

Around 10, 900 years BP, climate turned warm and dry, with hotter summers than today. Extreme low sea levels continued to bare so much of the seabed among the Gulf and San Juan Islands that entire ecosystems could cross over to colonize Vancouver Island from the south. Habitat for Bewick’s wren expanded all around the Salish Sea. Douglas fir forest, with dense, shrubby understory spread into and beyond its present zone. Garry oak ecosystem established here also, and wildfire repeatedly cleared swaths of Garry oak meadow. Between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago approximately, this hillside and valley may have looked much like Oregon oak lands look today. The people likely hunted animals we know now on the Island, and possibly dug camas bulbs in meadow. During decades between wildfires, patches of dense brush would grow among the old oaks, and we probably heard Bewick’s wrens sing.

Climate turned slightly cooler and wetter from 8,000 to 4,500 years ago, increasingly like the present day. More Douglas fir forest moved into the valley. Redcedar forest established in damp soil along the creek. Wildfires decreased. Oak meadow zones shrank. People may have adjusted by purposely burning the underbrush to preserve meadow for camas-gathering and forest edge habitat for hunting. Sea level was rising. Shoreline gradually receded to its present position, with the creek mouth at Oak Bay. Ocean increasingly isolated Island plants and animals, including Bewick’s wren. From about 4,500 years BP, the valley and its people maintained generally the same ecosystems that enchanted fur traders landing in 107 BP (1843).

I feel better already. Acquiring this new information applies cement to the cracks in that old self-image. I hear Bewick’s wren sing this morning from the top of a spruce tree across Fern Street. What’s that you say, little bird? Your song tells me: “Forget this inward-looking self-image business. Sit up straight. Sing out. Stake life’s claim to this hillside and valley. Fight for us when you need to.”

12. Setophaga petechia

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August 20, 2016

Our neighbours enjoy the Lombardy poplars. They grow tall along the back yard’s north fence. But they need more water in summer than this dry hillside naturally provides. Seeking moisture they send their roots invading the vegetable beds, berries and flowers. They stand out of place and time. They belong in the valley bottom along a ditch on a farm a century ago. A few old Lombardy poplars still do stand there, in fact, beside Bowker Creek.

Nostalgia moved Sherryll to plant Lombardy poplars at the Meeting House. She remembered evening light on lofty windbreak trees across a field; she pictured a high leafy backdrop for Quaker garden parties and family back yard picnics. The poplars do provide it, but Swedish columnar aspens, we belatedly learn, might offer the same benefits, more drought tolerance and less invasive roots.

On the Lombardy poplars, a few leaves are turning colour as fall approaches. No breeze blew this morning, but one yellow leaf detached and fluttered sideways into the next tree. Apparent defiance of gravity by a leaf merited a closer look. Binoculars revealed a yellow bird foraging with a thin bill for insects. A warbler.

Wilson’s or Yellow warbler? I won’t claim certainty. The checklist from Victoria Natural History Society shows both species common in August. Poring over descriptions and illustrations in Peterson’s Field Guide inclines me to identify the bird as a female or immature Yellow warbler, Setophaga petechia.

This was the most cheerful-coloured bird I have seen at Fern Street. Probably it was fueling-up on its way south. BC coastal geography funnels many migrant birds through the southern tip of the Island. The Rocky Point Bird Observatory reports peak numbers of Yellow warbler passing through in the last two weeks of August. I’m happy to think that our trees at the Meeting House may provide insects to power songbird migrations. Visits from little beautiful birds persuade me that bugs may be the garden’s best crop, though caterpillars attacking our fruit trees often challenge that viewpoint.

Setophaga petechia migrates far. In winter, from Mexico south into Peru and Brazil, it brightens-up tropical jungle, mangrove swamp and city park. In summer Yellow warblers fan out through temperate and arctic North America. For any Canadian who knows where to look, they adorn this nation from sea to sea to sea.

Where should we look? The short response is: patches of shrubby willow. Birds of British Columbia, Volume 4 (2007) reports:

“The Yellow Warbler breeds in sunlit stands of deciduous vegetation and has a strong attraction to willow. …. In general it prefers shorter trees in dense stands, and shrubbery in riparian habitats along stream courses, on the margins of beaver ponds, [and] wet meadows….”

“Riparian” –  the transitional zone between land and water ecosystems – the term appears often in descriptions of Yellow warbler habitat. It includes the shrubby edges of marshland and the banks of pond and stream. Locally The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region directs us to the riparian zone at Blenkinsop Lake where “…thick growth of willows and dogwood along the trail conceals Yellow warblers.…”

We grow no willows, genus Salix, in this yard or park. Local native willows would not naturally thrive on the dry hillside. They would prosper more on the flats along Bowker Creek. More broadly defined however, willows do grow in this yard and park. The larger willow family, Salicaceae, includes poplar, alder, birch and aspen. Our Lombardy poplars belong to it, as do the black cottonwood and white birch. We qualify marginally as habitat for Setophaga petechia, if only as a feeding stop for migrants.

Yellow warblers have illumined Bowker Valley, I expect, longer than people have been here to delight in them. Willows would establish quickly after the most recent Ice Age, and warblers follow. Observations of receding glaciers in coastal Alaska illustrate the pattern. Retreating ice leaves bare land, and willows take root within a few years. Within decades, warbler song and colour enlivens dense willow thicket.

When favoured habitat appears, Setophaga petechia quickly colonizes. “Yellow warblers are an indicator species,” the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia states, “one guide to the changing landscape of British Columbia, and may be one of the first to expand into early successional habitats.” When logging removes coniferous forest, for example, alders spring up in the clearings and Yellow warblers move in. When we drain wetlands or clear willow from streambanks, warbler numbers decrease.

Bowker Valley offered Yellow warblers far more nesting habitat in the past than at present. Several kilometres of the creek and its tributaries meandered through marsh and ponds. The back cover of the Bowker Creek Blueprint document is a map from 1854. It shows many hectares of wetlands along the stream and its tributaries. Roughly estimated, wet areas on the 1854 map extended about six kilometers and averaged more than 100 metres wide (around 60 hectares or 150 acres). As at Blenkinsop Lake today, shrub willow and red-osier dogwood thicket would naturally occupy that corridor. Every May and June hundreds of Yellow warblers likely nested.

In 1854 the farming era here had hardly begun. Victoria’s settler population consisted mainly in fur trade employees at the Hudson’s Bay Company fort by the harbour. The map indicates that our valley’s only public road was a cart track across it (now Fort Street), connecting Fort Victoria to the HBC farm at Cadboro Bay. A side road branched off to a cluster of buildings on bottomland below this Fern Street hillside. They stood at present-day Carrick Street in the North Jubilee neighbourhood, and served Bowker Valley’s first farm.

The farm lot, labeled “Sec. 26” on the map, appears to include Fern Street and all of North Jubilee. Archival records indicate Modeste Demers as its holder. Marshy Bowker Creek meanders diagonally across it. Bishop Demers faced big challenges in 1854. The church had weighted its newly-arrived prelate of its newly-created diocese of Vancouver Island with responsibility for spiritual care of peoples of the entire BC mainland, its coastal islands and Alaska, but had supplied virtually no funding. Of his two priests, he had sent one up-Island to Nanaimo, and the other to the mainland. I would be interested to learn why he took up a land grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company and broke the soil of Bowker Valley. Did he personally wield the plough? Modeste Demers came from a family that had farmed in Quebec for two centuries. I imagine the middle-aged farmer clearing trees and brush and spading his potato patch.

The image disturbs me. Bishop Demers, did you dig your stretch of Bowker Creek straighter and deeper, drain your bit of its wetlands, cut and uproot your portion of its riparian willow thicket? Did the story of its degradation start with you? I continue your story. I break Bowker Valley soil again every year to grow potatoes; I dwell in comfort on your farm’s hillside pasture with hundreds of other people in huge buildings. Our roofs and roads prevent rain from soaking into earth; we divert stormwater churning down drains to our big storm sewer, the creek.

How may I reconcile my feelings of kinship, admiration, gratitude, disgust, anger and mortification? I dreamt of dead deer lying rotting in dewy morning meadow; maybe a hunter’s dump; it stinks; severed heads of sea lions stare as new lovers walk naked from last night’s embrace in the treetops, ashamed to awaken here. The girl touches her abdomen, aware of a new life. No going back now. The law, attraction, calls forth experience from innocence, summons new innocence out of old experience, spirals mind expanding always out through time.

Settlers: Modeste Demers, faithful servant of his church, missionary to the peoples who already lived here; James Douglas, fur trader, faithful servant of his company and empire. They were good friends, men of goodwill, decent proponents of their civilization’s ideals. Douglas had purchased the lands around Fort Victoria in 1850, including this valley, from the native families who lived in the area. Those families had chosen to live beside the fort. It offered profitable employment as well as safety from raids by more warlike peoples up-Island and up-coast. Potato patches provided starch with much less effort than did camas meadows. Fabric from the trading post provided clothing more conveniently than did wool dogs and spindles. Agrarian, industrial, global economy offered them an easier life. Who turns down that offer?

We sleep. We awaken many decades later in the city that Douglas imagined, in the valley that Demers’ shovel pierced, and walk down the hillside. Death stinks in the meadow: carcasses from fur trade slaughter, settlement and progress. Morning gifts us with new eyes and with guilt. Rest your palm on your abdomen; experience the new sense of justice that makes us feel sick here this morning. We are not who we were.

We carry a civilization to which we may give birth. The sense of justice we feel beneath our palm extends to every human, every species and ecosystem. Rest your palm on your abdomen; the civilization of one living Earth gestates. The law, attraction, calls us to bear and to serve it.

After 1854 change came fast in the valley. Farmers ditched and drained. A 1901 panoramic photo, snapped from Mt. Tolmie, shows pleasant farmland, no sign of shrubby marsh. Only in winter did the valley bottom stay soggy. A man I met remembered skating on the winter lake that covered the intersection of Shelbourne Street and Cedar Hill Crossroad. A woman who had lived upstairs from her family’s store as a child on Haultain Street told me of water inundating the shop. The residence upstairs remained dry and a rowboat ferried the little girl to higher ground for school.

Stormwater drains slowly in a low-gradient stream. Over its eight-kilometre length, Bowker Creek descends only fifty metres; slope averages about 0.6%. Crossing land at hardly any slope, a stream dawdles. It meanders and spreads into wetlands. In rainy winter it pools and stays flooded for months. Salmon and trout prosper.

Around the Salish Sea, streams like Bowker Creek were the most productive of Coho salmon. Coho juveniles live a full year in fresh water before migrating to the ocean. In winter, Bowker Valley marsh and swamp provided safe habitat in calm water. In the leafy seasons, shrub willow hid the stream, protected little salmon and trout from kingfishers and herons. Its cool water, shaded by willow, held abundant oxygen for fish to breathe. Shrubby riparian thicket also showered insects onto the stream surface for fish to eat. And it supplied insects for great numbers of nesting and migrating birds, such as Yellow warblers.

Gently sloping valleys also invite agriculture and city-building. City replaced farm in Bowker Valley during the Twentieth Century. Householders demanded dry ground all year. The creek became a stormwater-management problem for municipal engineers. They ditched it progressively deeper and straighter, then culverted most of it underground. Of Bowker Creek’s wide wetlands the last vestige persists at the University of Victoria, at the creek’s headwaters. Mature cottonwoods dominate swampy ground between the University Club and Gordon Head Road.

City engineers these days know that marsh absorbs stormwater, cleans it and prevents flooding downstream. Climate change appears to be giving us bigger winter rains. To mitigate flooding, Bowker Creek Blueprint recommends opening-up sections of the stream that now lie deep in culvert. As opportunities arise, we may engineer wetlands and meandering channel to slow and absorb high flows. On the old Demers farm in the Twenty-first Century, yellow songbirds aplenty may nest in riparian willow thicket at the city’s heart. Justice invites them.

11. Psaltriparus minimus

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August 15, 2016

Nesting season gives way to the time of foraging flocks. A new gang showed up this morning, and a different hustle-bustle stirred trees and bushes. At first, foliage concealed the animators. I recognized a chickadee song, and got a brief look at a bright yellow bird, some sort of warbler, but neither chickadee nor warbler powered the event. They only travelled along with it. The thicket vibrated with nondescript, very small birds. I noted their delicate beaks and general browny colouring, lighter below than above, but no distinctive markings. One alit on the back fence and I made note of its “really long tail”. I supposed it was a wren. Peterson’s Field Guide helped me determine they must be Bushtits, “very small, plain birds that move from bush to tree in straggling flocks….” I felt them as a robust, energetic presence.

Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus, flocks. It maintains year-round, stable membership in its group of four to forty birds. Flock is the greater intellect in which each Bushtit participates, its vital network of communication. Birds of Victoria and Vicinity describes the flock in winter:

“… 15 to 30 move haltingly through the mixed shrubs and trees, hanging upside-down or sideways as they search for insect eggs and larvae. They remain in touch with one another more by sound than by sight, their drab bodies and grey-brown heads blending with the shrubbery. Soft, lisping seeps and twitters are often heard before the birds are seen.”

Their survival depends on constant communication, mostly about food. The winter flock must consume bugs in enormous number daily. Each tiny body, smaller than a chickadee, presents much surface area relative to its internal dimensions, so it quickly radiates away energy. And its metabolism burns hot, maintaining body temperature at around 38.60C. Even on this mild August day, it must eat at least 80% of its own mass in insects, or lose weight. Its job is to keep eating. The flock’s job is to keep finding food.

Every flock member both leads and follows, offers information and listens. It’s a model of teamwork I like. R.C. Miller, a graduate student in California at Berkeley, trailed a band of Bushtits and reported to The Condor with his article, The Flock Behavior of the Coast Bushtit (July 1921). He analyzed the birds’ movements as follows:

“The flock is foraging, let us say, in the outer foliage of an oak tree…. Presently some individual finds the forage poor; no more scale insects or aphids are to be found in its immediate vicinity; it begins to look about in search of fresh fields and pastures green. Yonder is a clump of chaparral that looks promising. A few yards of open space must indeed be traversed in order to reach it, and Bush-tits have a native abhorrence of open spaces; they are natural agoraphobiacs. But hunger is a strong stimulus. The bird hesitates a moment, then darts out and with hurried, undulating flight crosses to the chaparral.

“Other individuals of the flock find food beginning to run short in the oak foliage. They too see the near-by clump of chaparral; they have seen their companion make the flight successfully; they hear his notes, perhaps indicating that he has found food; they themselves are encouraged to make the venture.

“Now the impulse spreads; in groups of two or three or five, others dart across from the oak to the chaparral, until shortly the whole flock has moved to the new location.”

Miller’s image of darting “from the oak to the chaparral”, nicely describes Bushtit country. Typical habitat, my Field Guide lists as “oak scrub, chaparral, mixed woods, pinions and junipers”, from southwestern B.C. to Guatemala. The southwest tip of Vancouver Island, with our Garry oaks, oak scrub and mixed forest, better fits the description of Psaltriparus minimus territory than any other spot in BC. Yet Bushtit is a recent immigrant here, first observed in 1937.

It has far longer occupied the mainland, the lower Fraser Valley. The first printed record of Psaltriparus minimus in BC is from 1866 in John Keast Lord’s book, The naturalist in Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Lord served in the new colony in 1858-59 as naturalist and veterinary surgeon with the British North America Boundary Commission, surveying the Canada/US border. He wrote: “I saw this tiny tit… at Sumass Prairie…, but had no opportunity to observe its habits.”

I don’t get it. Why would Sumas Prairie support Bushtits, perhaps for centuries, when Bowker Valley did not? I have lived in both. Dad worked at the Sumas border crossing for many years. Mom learned a deep sense of place for Sumas Prairie and Sumas Mountain. She admired John Keast Lord and other young British men of science who paid attention to the biological and cultural systems of our coast and left written records. Christie was a writer. But the facts remain, our Victoria climate is drier, our winters warmer, our vegetation more California-ish. What sensible Bushtit would prefer the mainland to southeast Vancouver Island?

I suspect they were simply unable to get here. Remember M.C. Miller’s comment in The Condor that “Bush-tits have a native abhorrence of open spaces….” No Bushtit is going to set out across kilometers of open water toward a dimly visible shore. Nor is the bird built to fly so far. The Birds of North America website suggests that maximum range for non-stop flight, may be about 200 metres.

Then how did it arrive in Victoria in the 1930s? My first guess was island-hopping. Many small islands dot the Salish Sea between here and the mainland. But that solution doesn’t really work. It still involves multiple flights of several kilometers across water. Also, Victoria saw Bushtits before the smaller islands did. Psaltriparus minimus range appears to have spread from this city over several decades, to nearby islands as well as north and west on Vancouver Island. If Bushtits crossed direct from the mainland to Victoria, I guess they travelled by ship. That’s what Mom did when she came to live with Sherryll, Holly and me in the ‘90s. How and why would a Bushtit flock get on a boat? I don’t know, but I welcome them.

I look forward to seeing a nest. Many must hang in bushes in Bowker Valley. The Naturalists Guide to the Victoria Region advises that the “…delicately-woven and pendulous nest may be detected in clumps of Ocean-spray.” Birds of Victoria and Vicinity tells us to watch for “…what one might mistake for an old grey sock hanging from a bushy shrub.” They are marvels.

Building one, a Bushtit pair starts out by lacing a circle of spider silk in the fork of a twig. They intertwine more silk and moss as a small pocket in the circle. Then they continue to work inside it, adding, weaving and stretching it downward.  They create a purse, vase-shaped, with narrowed neck and widened lower end. The interior they insulate with fur, feathers and downy plant materials like willow cotton. To the outer surface, they bind flecks of lichen for camouflage.

The nest, well insulated, keeps eggs warm, allowing adults maximum time for foraging. Strong and stretchy, it may accommodate a sizeable group overnight, perhaps fourteen nestlings and adults. That’s a big family. A female may lay as many as ten eggs, and the parents may have other adult helpers. This is a sociable species. Their amazing nests require large investment of time and energy. Predators destroy most of them. Adult Bushtits who have lost theirs often contribute as helpers at successful nests, co-parents.

The bushtit pattern of sociability has served the species its ancestors and its cousins for ages. Its whole family, Aegithalidae, the Long-tailed tits, behaves with remarkable similarity. Of eleven living Aegithalid species, only Psaltriparus minimus is American. Its forerunners, we believe, schmoozed and darted their way across the Bering land bridge around ten million years ago.

The Long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus, isAmerican Bushtit’s closest relative. It thrives over vast portions of Europe and Asia. Like its American cousin, Long-tailed tit feeds in stable flocks of three to thirty birds. Wikipedia’s description of its nest shows striking parallels:

“The nest of the long-tailed tit is constructed from four materials, lichen, feathers, spider egg cocoons and moss, with over 6,000 pieces used for a typical nest. [It] is a flexible sac… suspended… in the forks of tree branches. Structural stability… is provided by a mesh of moss and spider silk. The tiny leaves of the moss act as hooks, and the spider silk of egg cocoons provides the loops; thus forming a natural…Velcro. The tit lines the outside with hundreds of flakes of pale lichens – this provides camouflage. Inside, it lines the nest with more than 2,000 downy feathers to insulate…. Nests suffer a high rate of predation with only 17% success.”

As with American Bushtits, adult Long-tailed tits who lose their nests help with others.

The American Bushtit’s gregarious nature helps it also in winter cold. Birds endure the night clustered in a tight clump. The huddle raises the flock’s ratio of mass to surface area. It presents a smaller out-side, so its in-side conserves heat. Their convivial disposition shows also at winter feeders. As Birds of Victoria and Vicinity describes: “Beef suet hanging… will result in repeated visits from local families of Bushtits. They crowd onto the fat like a swarm of bees.”

Looking at the little bird with the long tail on the back fence this morning leaves me with a paradox. I saw drab insignificance without distinctive marking, contrast or colour, only brownish-grey, grading to grayish-brown on crown and forehead. But I felt vivid animation that sparkled. Bushtit has no audible song, but my heart heard one. Sherryll has a fridge magnet that quotes Rabbi Abraham Heschel: “Just to be is a Blessing, Just to Live is Holy.” The non-descript little brown bird on the back fence sang to me of his or her intrinsic worthiness, and of mine.

10. Haemorhous mexicanus

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August 1, 2016

This morning the back yard on Fern Street was quiet compared with downtown Mexico City. House finches there have evolved a higher pitched voice to communicate above the Mexican capital’s deep urban din. In Victoria the House finches can hear each other more easily, no doubt. Probably I could hear them, but wouldn’t recognize their voices. When I listened at 8:30, first I noted crows, gulls and a seaplane, then hospital ventilations fans, voices of little brown birds (LBBs) and door machinery for underground parking, but not much traffic. On a public holiday, people were probably sleeping in.

My notes from 8:30 proclaim:

“Beautiful! I have hoped for this! An LBB with a red breast and forehead landed on a kale plant. They are there for him, partly. Don told me that he lets his kale and arugula go to seed partly for the seeds & partly because the House finches like them….”

The little brown, vermillion-fronted bird perched briefly to pick at seedpods. Finding them spent, he flew off. Red Russian kale loves it here. I follow the example of Don, my fellow gardener at the Meeting House, leaving a few plants to self-seed. No need to sow, just move little plants where I want them. We have kale all year. I wish we had amaranth also. Amaranth seedheads in North American fields have suppliedHouse finch males with red pigment for ages.

House finch is a native American bird. How deeply native, science has recently revealed. My out-of-date bird books give House finch the Latin name, Carpodacus mexicanus. Recent sources place the species in a new genus, Haemorhous. The old name, Carpodacus, included House finch within the rosefinch family, widespread in Asia and Europe. DNA analysis now shows that the three American rosefinches don’t really belong in Carpodacus. They diverged from their Eurasian cousins around thirteen million years ago. House finch now shares with Purple and Cassin’s finches the American rosefinch genus, Haemorhous.

Modern science first noticed House finch in the dry lands of Mexicoand the US southwest. Hence the species name, mexicanus. It had been there a while. Fossil records place Haemorhous mexicanus in California and New Mexico half a million years ago. Its habitat spanned desert, grassland, scrub and sparse forest. The finch fed mainly on seeds of low plants on open land – amaranth, for example. Open land, but not bare. House finch typically chose habitat with enough bushes or trees to provide roosting above the ground and to supply some edible fruits, berries and flowers. It chose dry lands, but not waterless. People in the arid southwest and Mexico learned that seeing a House finch signaled water nearby. Classic habitat follows the stream along the bottom of a dry valley.

Humans first entered House finch habitat ten to fourteen thousand years ago. We have evidence almost that ancient. In sagebrush parklands at Chance Gulch in the Colorado Rockies around 9000 years ago, our family hunted and gathered. The sight of willow trees down in the gulch invited us to water. We found a good spring and camped near it. We hunted bison, deer, pronghorn, smaller animals and birds. Archaeologists have found the bones around our hearth, including Haemorhous mexicanus. If I feel uncomfortable imagining my family killing and eating House finches, I remind myself that we were stone-age folk at the time; just staying alive was a dominant concern.

“My family”, I say, “we” sat around that paleo-american hearth beside the spring in Chance Gulch. I claim for myself and for anyone who might read these words, direct biological descent from the most ancient Coloradans. The assertion is tentative but not ridiculous. Mathematicians and computer scientists at MIT and Yale examine our ancestry and suggest that all humans alive today may claim a completely identical set of ancestors as recently as five to fifteen thousand years ago.

Douglas Rohde, Steve Olson and Joseph Chang authored a letter to the journal Nature (September 2004), Modelling the recent common ancestry of all living humans. They pointed out that human lineage doesn’t just diverge; it also mixes back. Their thinking changes my picture of peopling the Americas. My old mental map of migration showed one big arrow crossing the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and curving south down the Rockies. The arrow, splitting and re-splitting would reach into all corners of the Americas. The old map would suggest a one-way, one-time event. The new map would show multiple flows that curve into loops and eddies, mingle, coalesce and generate new currents.

Genetics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Linguistics, Mathematics, all blossom in the 21stCentury and share their information. The picture now shows three distinct migration streams from Asia. One moves down the Pacific coast to South America, another down the Rockies and the third across the Arctic to Greenland. The currents meet and swirl together. Migration also curls back from South America into North America, and back from Alaska into Asia.

The Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands portion of the mental map, I zoom up larger. Many little arrows cross between Asia and America over recent millennia, as many little boats carry people back and forth. The Bering Sea appears not as a barrier to migration between Eurasia and America, but as a link. Whatever portion of the map I enlarge, I see people meeting from every direction. Humans perennially relocate. We invade, raid and trade. We follow our food source or our star. Things go wrong for us at home and we end up in a different place among different people. New blood finds its way across every social taboo and geographical feature to the most isolated caste and island. Humans demonstrate a powerful natural proclivity for mixing our ancestry. “There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep”, as the song says, bloodlines apart, in the Stone Age or now. It’s good. It keeps our gene pools rich, and our species adaptable.

It also keeps everybody more closely related than we previously thought. Viewed from space, your family tree looks more like a global network. We all may be biological children of the first humans who camped at the mouth of Bowker Creek just down the valley from this Fern Street hillside. We all may descend directly from the family that snacked on Haemorhous mexicanus around the hearth in Chance Gulch 9000 years ago

About 7000 years ago, our relationship with that bird deepened. We invented farming in Mexico. We domesticated amaranth and surrounded ourselves with it as our cereal staple. We built dams in dry valleys for irrigation, raised windbreaks and houses. Our efforts provided food, water and off-the-ground roosting and nesting for the little brown bird with the red front. Human-altered landscape invited it to settle into its new “House finch” era.

Haemorous mexicanus likely adapted as a Mexico City bird in Aztec Empire times. Known 800 years ago as Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital housed 200,000 people, grew huge crops of amaranth and imported 180,000 bushels of it annually as imperial tribute.

In recent centuries our human houses, towns and cities have greatly multiplied. So has Haemorhous mexicanus. In Denver, Dr. W. H. Bertgold wrote A Study of the House Finch for the journal, The Auk, in 1913. He noted that:

“The characteristic native bird of the cities and towns of Colorado is the House Finch…. Previous to the advent of the English Sparrow in Denver…the only bird at all common about the buildings… was this finch….In 1881 when the writer first visited Colorado….the House Finch had already taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by… barns and other buildings, to construct nests thereon….”

North America’s changing landscape of farm, city and suburb attracted Haemorhous mexicanus to expand its range in all directions. Along arid valleys northward into Oregon and Washington, we irrigated, planted and built towns. The bird followed. By 1935, Ian McTaggart-Cowan noticed House finches in the Okanagan, a dry valley in British Columbia’s southern interior. He noticed them also here in Victoria.

Briony Penn comments in her McTaggart-Cowan biography, The Real Thing, that he had just returned to BC in 1935 from the University of California, Berkeley, where the House finch was common and familiar to him. She quotes him: “…the House finch song was still echoing in my mind. I was walking to work past the Crystal Pool [in downtown Victoria] and there it was. Its nest was within my reach and they raised three broods that summer.” Only in Victoria, nowhere else in coastal BC or Washington did we see Haemorhous mexicanus in the 1930s.

Coastal rainforest was not its habitat. Damp was not its climate. Ours was – Victoria, driest city on the BC or Washington coast. A few House finches had jumped, it appears, from Penticton in the dry Okanagan Valley, 150 kilometres across the Coast Range, coastal plain and Salish Sea to roost in the ivy on the Empress Hotel. Scientists report that House finches have commonly made such hops, known as “jump dispersals”, as the species has expanded its range.  From an established population, a few birds relocate thirty to 180 kilometers distant and breed successfully. That new population then builds up locally and diffuses regionally.

Victoria’s House finch population gradually diffused up Vancouver Island’s east coast. It also jumped back across water to the mainland.  We noticed them in Vancouver around 1950, in Seattle by the mid-‘50s, and all around the Salish Sea over the ‘60s and ‘70s. House finch has acclimatized now to damp Pacific Northwest conditions. It thrives, in fact, in diverse climes across North America.

Introduced in New York in the 1940s, for example, the bird rapidly evolved a more-compact shape for surviving cold, snowy winters: shorter legs, feet, wings and tail. It grew a bigger bill that could crack the sunflower seeds in New York feeders. Atlantic-coast-hardy, Haemorhous mexicanus extended its range rapidly south, west, and also north into Canada. It spread into Ontario during the 1970s and ‘80s, Quebec and the Atlantic and prairie provinces in the ‘90s.

Numbering anywhere between 267 million and 1.7 billion, House finch shows up as a strikingly adaptable species – like humans. Back home in Mexico City, for example, the bird has acclimatized to extreme urban conditions. Scientists have shown city finches to focus calmly on food-finding tasks amid levels of human hustle-bustle that totally fluster a country cousin. Mexico City birds have also adopted a new chemical pesticide for controlling ticks that infest nestlings: parent birds line their nests with used cigarette filters.

Like humans also, House finches are disposed to leave home and find mates in some other community. Only twenty percent remain local and breed in their natal population. Juveniles move away in all directions, commonly less than twenty kilometres, but some disperse as far as 1200 km. Adult birds likewise tend to spread out and relocate after breeding season. Like us, House finch is disposed to mixing and remixing its ancestry, continually refreshing its gene pools.

Next year, I promise the House finches: I will sow amaranth. West Coast Seeds sells packets of Burgundy Grain variety and Hopi Red Dye. I hope, next August, to watch a little brown bird with red-ochre forehead, breast and chin munching from an amaranth seedhead atop its tall stalk. Self-seeding, amaranth might settle-in here like the kale. The Meeting House garden might join in an ancient North American relationship.