19. Melospiza melodia

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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.