13. Thryomanes Bewickii


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

Autumn leaves on groundLQ

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.

9. Cathartes aura


July 31, 2016

Turkey vulture, you surprised me yesterday late-afternoon. I don’t often see you in the city in high summer. You glided across the park, maybe fifty metres up, a black silhouette against blue sky.

I won’t see you now. It’s too early in the morning, too cloudy and cool. No warm air rises from sun-heated rocks to lift you soaring. I sit on the fire escape behind the Meeting House as water hisses from a sprinkler onto garden beds. You sit a few kilometers from here, in forest away from humans, in a big Douglas fir probably. It sways slightly in this breeze that puffs on my face and hair. Around you sit other Turkey vultures, at roost on Discovery Island perhaps, or on Chatham Island. You glided yesterday in that direction, returning from pastoral foraging, I’m guessing, out Munn Road and Prospect Lake way.

You pass over Fern Street Park without landing. We don’t smell right. Not that we lack your kind of edibles. No doubt you whiffed the rat I buried yesterday in the compost box. I can’t smell it, but your olfactory abilities infinitely outshine mine. To your nostrils the park speaks too powerfully of human and dog. Given your slow lift-off from the ground, you know better than to land around here.

Your kind of country lies beyond Victoria city limits. Southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands offer plenty of the pasture, scrub, rock and shore you prefer for scavenging. Nearby forest provides safe roost. Cliff and steep rocky slope offer secluded nest sites. Sunny days and sea breeze across rugged terrain send updrafts to keep you aloft.

There was no mistaking you. No need for binoculars or bird book. Only you would drift, wings sloping up in a V, aglide with comical wobbles and tilts. An eagle would glide more majestically steady, stable, with wings out flat. We see no other vultures around here, and very few birds with your wingspan.

Soaring in the hills you surprised me when Sherryll and I moved to the Island in the 1980s (not literally you, but possibly a grandparent). Missing relatives and friends, we drove and bicycled in the country. Seeing you evoked memories of green ranchland Christmas hikes with my California sister and brother and their families, summer trips in Oregon landscapes of oak meadow. Here, the countryside looked similar, and you fit the picture.

You have soared here for centuries I suspect. It’s not clear. Historical records don’t mention you in British Columbia until the late 1800s. But indigenous languages name you. Some of the peoples who were living around the Salish Sea when Europeans first settled here include words for Turkey vulture in their dictionaries. So I suspect thatyou were known locally before the English language took over.

Dense rainforest previously repelled you from most of coastal BC, but some landscapes around the Salish Sea may have welcomed you. Mountains to our west reduce rainfall here. Our dry ridge-tops and upper slopes naturally lack forest. Camas flowers bloom here. You had no interest in flowers, but our camas may have affected you. People here prized the bulbs as food. We cultured camas lands, and cleared them with fire. We maintained expanses of oak meadow that looked and smelled to you like the camas lands of Oregon – good foraging for Turkey vultures.

Yesterday afternoon you passed straight over these buildings and this park. They are new to the hillside. Three hundred years ago in oak meadow, I imagine, in summer, at night, in long grass here, a deer mouse died. Next afternoon, a Turkey vulture circled above. It spiraled slowly down a trail of scent and landed to pick the mouse from the grass.

Through the 1900s, people around the Salish Sea enlarged your foraging habitat. We cut down forest for cow pasture, for electrical transmission corridor and as logging clearcut. You expanded your range and increased your numbers. By the 1980s, the checklist in The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region listed you as common in summer. Sherryll and I could reliably enjoy your tippy floating over the local countryside. Here in the city, Turkey vulture time was late September.

Soccer season, 1995, Saturday afternoon, September 23rd, the Flames, nine and ten year-old girls, were burning up a field at Oak Bay High. Our child Holly ran with the Flames. Bowker Creek trickled alongside the field. Himalayan blackberry vines, a thorny tangle, concealed the ditch, steep-sided and deep where the stream emerged from its culvert under Oak Bay Rec Centre’s tennis bubble. Coaching the Flames, though, gave me no time to brood on the sins of my culture toward salmon streams.

On such a sunny afternoon of autumn, brisk and golden, who could brood anyway? The Flames hustled as a team, intelligent and fast. But a mid-fielder quit running. She stood affixed, looking upward. A parent exclaimed and pointed upward. The game halted as all watched Turkey vultures kettle. Maybe two-dozen huge birds circled, bobbing like a pot beginning to boil. The Flames, I may safely assume, prevailed in the match, considering that we never lost in three years. We remembered that game though, as the vulture day.

It happens to you every late-September. Instinct urges you to glide south. Glide, not fly. Wing-flapping is not your style, but your soaring and gliding, no bird around here can equal. You detect the most modest of updrafts. At Oak Bay High, for example, you saw dark, flat roof and parking lot. You glided to it, felt its thermal, and circled inside its narrow column, rising with it. When its lift petered out, you glided to the next updraft westward.

Westward? Why not south? A thousand, perhaps two thousand of you glide south in late September as far as here, Victoria. At the southern tip of the Island you see ahead of you the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and you hesitate. Open water doesn’t create the columns of rising air you need to lift you. Trying to cross the Strait by wing-flapping would kill you. Fortunately, you know a place where you may cross. The Turkey vulture population remembers. Every generation of adults leads its juveniles west along the shore to Beachy Head, where the Sooke Hills reach south into the Strait.

Beachy Head cuts the width of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to nineteen km. That’s too far for you to flap, but the headland also produces major updrafts. Its hills deflect upward the wind that blows down the Strait. Its rocky slopes send up tall thermals on sunny days, and late-September reliably provides sunshine. People gather to watch great kettles of you rise hundreds of metres, tiny dots that disappear. On the Strait’s southern shore, people gather to greet your arrival, straggling flocks of hundreds of Turkey vultures. Some of you flap the final kilometers. Most glide clean across.

Hatched from your egg on the ground under a boulder on a steep slope in Victoria’s greenbelt, you may glide to Central America for the winter. You may drift hundreds of metres above the local resident Turkey vultures that my nieces and nephews see in coastal California. Each day of migration, your sharp eyes will spot features of land and cloud that indicate strong updraft, and spot other birds soaring there. The current will lift you hundreds, sometimes thousands of metres. You will glide south, watching for the next big updraft.

This year in sunny September another generation of little girls, parents and coaches will play at Oak Bay High. Last year the fields were closed. Old buildings fell and a new school rose. Playing fields shifted, and Bowker Creek widened. I exulted. For more than a century, we have ditched Bowker Creek straighter and deeper, culverted and buried. Its lively, intricate community at the centre of this valley, we have corrupted to storm sewer. Of Earth’s flowing fresh water, the few kilometers in our trust we have sickened. But last year at Oak Bay High, one short section of Bowker Creek we opened out and naturalized. We excavated a more gentle slope on the left bank, engineered meander into the streambed, planted local native shrubs and trees, built a path along the bank so people can enjoy. We are waking up.

Beside the creek, in that Oak Bay High section, three hundred years ago I sit and listen. I hear: shady stillness of cedar, fern and lichen; tinkling, sibilant water over gravel; drum logs far off that speak under beaks of two Pileated woodpeckers. Even in dry high summer, cool water quickens down the creek’s riffles and slows in its pools. More water unseen percolates downstream through deep soil. Giant cedar trees can keep their feet damp here. Cedar forest corridor traces the valley bottom, and the creek meanders within it.

I wait, in that past age, quiet beside a pool, looking in. A few little fish, no bigger than a toddler’s chubby fingers, hover above sand beside a boulder. Overhang of the boulder shelters them from kingfishers. Clear water allows me to glimpse a hint of white streamer on a fin. I recognize Coho salmon juveniles. They hatched from their streambed gravel nest this spring. Next spring, grown as big as fingers of a ten-year-old child, they will run down the current into the ocean.

Deep mind of this place remembers the salmon. Sentience echoes here from community that time now conceals. Call it the Elders. It counsels us to live mindful in our relationship amidst our extended family, these creatures whose wellbeing is ours. If we listen, quiet, it speaks in our heart as longing to see salmon here again. Resolution evolves among us to invite salmon back to the stream. Twentieth Century consciousness produced amazing, noble works in this valley, but it cared little for Bowker Creek’s health.

Even the name “Bowker Creek” carries concepts of the stream as human-owned property, as object. We may choose to change it. Heritage Oak Bay has placed a bronze plaque by the creek with a local ancient name of “Thaywun: coho salmon stream”. Personally I would prefer it or some other name that recognizes the creek as a living system.

Renewing our coho salmon stream stands as our local great work for the Twenty-first Century. In the past 100 years we have buried about 60% of the creek in concrete pipe. In 2012 the City of Victoria and the Districts of Saanich and Oak Bay, all endorsed the Bowker Creek Blueprint: A 100-year action plan to restore Bowker Creek watershed. One step in the plan was last year’s earthworks beside Oak Bay High.

The Bowker Creek Blueprint suggests another step here in the North Jubilee neighbourhood. I have provoked a fight about it on the Neighbourhood Association board. The creek passes under the northeast corner of North Jubilee in culvert. The Blueprint suggests daylighting there – bringing the stream up to flow above ground in a new park. Victoria’s Official Community Plan indicates the possible park on a map. Now the City is drafting a new Parks Master Plan to guide green space development through the next 25 years. I want the Master Plan to include Bowker Creek meandering in daylight in that new park. As chair of the Neighbourhood Association, I have pushed for the board’s strong support, and promoted the park at a Community Meeting. At present I may be winning, but it feels like a battle. I feel pushback and enmity. I dread opening my email. Does the universe want what I want right now? Does it like my methods? Does this discussion relate at all to Turkey vultures?

Soaring is certainly not my experience of chairing the Neighbourhood Association board. Coaching the Oak Bay under-11 girls soccer Flames – now that was soaring!


6. Poecile rufuscens


July 22, 2016

This afternoon a sparrow called me from my desk onto the fire escape. Sunny summer overheats the upstairs at the Meeting House, and I prop doors and windows open. North wind, our fair-weather air from the mainland, fluttered papers on desk and floor. The sparrow had no trouble luring me outside. I was happy to escape desk-time worries. Someone camped in Fern Street Park this week.

Before 5:00 on a yard-watering morning I noticed a tent behind the Meeting House fence in the corner by the thicket. The Provincial government recently dispersed a tent city from its courthouse lawn downtown. Some of the people remain homeless and camp in parks around the city. The tent behind our fence is the first I have seen in Fern Street Park. The camper vacated some time before 8:00 a.m., leaving no mess. The only trace I see is zig-zaggy distortion in my right eye from stress.

My concern is with neighbourhood conflict. My friends and I care for beds of local native plants at three corners of Fern Street Park. We favour diverse community of plants, insects, birds, people young and old, renters and homeowners. If our gardening efforts appear to create habitat for homeless people, however, we have a big problem.

Some neighbours vehemently opposed our work in the park. A simple rectangle of lawn beside the children’s play structure had, for years, served their families well.  We designed the planted beds with care for child safety – clear lines of sight and no hidey-holes for lurkers. My fight-or-flight emotions shout, however, that the tent of a homeless person nestled against the thicket would re-fuel opposition to the planted beds I defend.

Before I saw the tent, primitive responses already hooted and thrashed underbrush within me this week. Other North Jubilee neighbourhood projects bristle with conflict. The Neighbourhood Association elected me to chair its board last month. I chair its Greenspace Committee as well. I have taken my new titles as license to act on my dreams for harmony of people and nature in our public spaces. Not everyone is responding as I had hoped though. I embroil myself and my friends in power struggles, feeling beset and contused.

Most bruising is the Spirit Garden path project. The public walkway through North Jubilee’s community garden needs repair. The Neighbourhood Association seeks funding from the city. I volunteered our Greenspace Committee to apply for the grant. We have some experience in shaping projects to attract grant money. Probably we’ll get the grant. But the Spirit Garden path effort is not the friendly, inclusive process I pictured. It has lifted the lid from a simmering pot of old antagonisms, dropped my friends in and turned up the heat.

I listened this afternoon from the fire escape upper landing. Gardeners’ machines howled from a condominium, but wind rustle in leaves invited me home to the back yard. It felt peaceful, in a busy sort of way. In the big maple, I discerned quick twitters and active small birds. Glimpses of white cheek wedged between black cap and bib indicated “chickadee”. Distribution maps in Peterson’s field guide showed just one chickadee hereabouts: “Chestnut-backed”. My Birds of Victoria and Vicinity (1989), confirmed in caps: “THIS IS THE ONLY CHICKADEEon Vancouver Island.”

Habitat for Chestnut-backed chickadee, the field guide encapsulates as “Moist conifer forest; adjacent oaks and shade trees”, which nicely describes Vancouver Island. This hillside would be an “adjacent oaks and shade trees” part. From coastal California to coastal Alaska, the species inhabits portions of North America’s western slope where Pacific air moderates climate and spreads moisture. Chestnut-backed stays west of the Continental Divide.

So this cannot be the chickadee species I banded in Mr. Sanborn’s back yard in Massachusetts in the 1960s. The memory remains in my left hand, grasping gently the small bird, one leg, toothpick-thin, immobilized in my fingers as I crimp the metal band around it. Those were Black-capped chickadee, common, the state bird.

My bird books show Chestnut-backed chickadee’s Latin name as Parus rufescens, but references on the Internet don’t agree. They name it Poecile rufescens. Why the difference? My books are thirty years old. Science had not yet opened DNA as a new page on which to read bird lineage. Chickadees have recently shifted from genus Parusto Poecile. Their whole family, Paridae (tits, titmice and chickadees), has been re-sorted. “This is supported”, Wikipedia asserts, “by mtDNA cytochrome b sequence analysis”. Yikes! – “mtDNA cytochrome b sequence analysis” – a densely technical mouthful. I will attempt to translate to everyday language, which will lead me to an evolution story that might help me feel better about conflict in the North Jubilee neighbourhood. A convoluted mental trick; I’ll try it.

The Wikipedia article gives a translation hint. “Cytochrome b is a protein found in the mitochondria of eukaryotic cells.” OK, “eukaryotic” refers to cells that have a nucleus. Human cells are eukaryotes, as are cells of birds and other creatures more complex than bacteria. The nucleus is the structure in the cell for carrying our personal DNA, directions for assembling our bodies. Another structure in our cells is mitochondria. Strangely, the mitochondria carry their own DNA, separate from ours. So “mtDNA” is the DNA in mitochondria. The anecdote of how it got there involves intense conflict. Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme tell it brilliantly in their book, The Universe Story (1992). I freely paraphrase:

A couple billion years ago, bacteria had already been mutating and evolving for more than two billion years. We had multiplied, dispersed and diversified throughout Earth’s ocean. We had overgrazed the chemical compounds of that rich, browny soup, and faced food shortages. Some of us had mutated and evolved to find a new food source: sunbeams. We trapped sunlight to take its energy.  The innovation succeeded fabulously, but poisoned the planet with our waste.

Our grim toxic waste of that day was oxygen, O2. Sunshine-eating bacteria had developed a solar-powered process – photosynthesis– to make sugar, a high-energy food, from carbon dioxide and water. Both were plentiful. The ocean was mainly H2O, and CO2 filled the atmosphere. So abundant was carbon dioxide that it enfolded the planet in a steamy hothouse blanket. So successful, however, were the sunshine-eaters, so much CO2 did we consume, so diminishing its hothouse cloud, that we plunged Earth into a massive ice age. But that was hardly our biggest problem.

Photosynthesis releases O2. Oxygen gas is reactive, hungry for electrons from other compounds. Before photosynthesis, oxygen had comprised less than 1% of our atmosphere. As the sunshine-eaters produced more and more of it, atmospheric oxygen increased to, 5%, 10%, 20%. It attacked and depleted common gasses of our good air: ammonia, carbon-monoxide, hydrogen sulphide. It bleached air and ocean from their cozy, fecund browns and oranges to deathly blue transparency. It burned not only our foods, but us also, the bacteria. No environmental crisis more dire has living Earth ever caused ourself than the oxygen catastrophe.

Our built-in creativity, our capacity of random mutation, turned the situation around. Bacteria found a great use for O2. A new process – respiration– used oxygen to convert sugar into available energy for the cell. Respiration consumes O2, producing CO2and H2O. So we had closed the loop. Now, solar-powered life could capture carbon dioxide and free it again, make oxygen and use it again. O2and CO2levels in the atmosphere balanced. We have maintained around 20% oxygen, ever since.

Another new capacity – parasitism– now pushed our evolution further along, through mortal conflict. A parasite bacterium would glom onto or invade another bacterium and feed from it. Parasites succeeded and diversified. Meanwhile, host bacteria fought back, evolved abilities for dealing with attackers. Many parasites and hosts fought to the death. Many limped along together hurt. Some found a good fit and partnered to our mutual benefit – symbiosis. One such partnership created mitochondria.

A parasite was taking sugar from its host for its own respiration. By mutation the two of us gradually struck a deal. One partner evolved as generous host and photosynthesizer, liberally supplying sugar and oxygen. The other evolved as resident specialist in respiration, making abundant energy available for both of us. The attacker thus integrated as a being-within-a-bigger-being; it evolved as mitochondrion, little power plant for the larger cell. Well cared-for by its host, the mitochondrion could shed most of its DNA. It still reproduced itself, but from a simpler set of directions, only 37 genes.

Cytochrome b is one of the mitochondrion’s genes. It helps scientists trace bird evolution. A protein, the cytochome b molecule consists of many little base parts bonded into a long chain. The sequence in which it links the base parts varies greatly between different species of bird. Those variations help scientists parse out species and genera. An international effort, The Bird 10,000 Genome Project(B10K), now consults cytochrome b as it sorts the entire bird branch of the tree of life.

Analysis indicates that the tit family first evolved in Eurasia, and genus Poecilebegan to branch-out there. Ancestors of the North American chickadees may have arrived here via the Bering land bridge three or four million years ago. Poecile rufescens(Chestnut-backed chickadee) separated from its nearest sister species, Poecile hudsonicus(Boreal chickadee), approximately 1.8 million years ago. Rufescensthrives in rainforest habitat of fir, cedar and hemlock. Hudsonicushas evolved for harsher environs of spruce, larch and pine.

The most recent ice age, scientists believe, pushed Boreal and Chestnut-backed into separate refugia. Newfoundland, twenty thousand years ago, possibly harboured hudsonicusat the Atlantic edge of continental ice. Rufescenspopulations survived in enclaves on the Pacific edge of the glaciation such as, possibly, the islands of Haida Gwaii. Glaciers receded around fifteen thousand years ago. In the next ten thousand years, taiga forest spread vast across most of Canada and Alaska. Boreal chickadee ranged west and north to populate it. Chestnut-backed chickadee spread east and north to inhabit our moister, milder Pacific slope forest.

Range of the two species meets in zones of transition between taiga and rainforest. Where their ecosystems overlap, hudsonicusand rufescensnest in different habitats. They combine, however, for winter feeding, socializing in mixed flocks with other little brown birds like red-breasted nuthatch, kinglet, bushtit and brown creeper. Flocking with other species creates wider intelligence; the mixed flock responds to more kinds of information, staying safer and finding more food.

Evolution continually separates us and fits us together. Chestnut-backed and Boreal chickadees part ways. Each finds its own fit in ecosystem, thus defining its unique individual being. Where habitats overlap, rufescensand hudsonicusfind a symbiosis. They collaborate for winter feeding. Two different bacteria, a parasite and its host, engage in conflict and attain communion as one cell, with its nucleus and its mitochondria. Billions of cells differentiate and find common purpose as a person or as a chickadee. Splitting, individuating and refitting in expanded community is a truth of evolution.

Humans can be conscious about it. A big birch in the Spirit Garden has died. We leave it standing, expanding our community. The snag may rot and provide nest holes for generations of Chestnut-backed chickadee. In Fern Street Park we put up nest boxes with entry holes of different sizes. A House sparrow can enter a 35 mm hole, but a 32 mm hole serves smaller birds like chickadees.

Pleasant thoughts, yet my ocular migraine persists. I still detest neighbourhood battles. They can feel personal and vicious. Learning to manage with justice and compassion our splitting and refitting – the journey of civility – we have some distance yet to travel.

4. Passer domesticus


June 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








1. Gallus gallus domesticus

June 17, 2016                                                                                               Victoria, BC, Canada

Hi Rich,

Back home here I intend to listen for birds. Today, first morning, early, through the open window of the bedroom, I heard chickens. It was not a sound I expected.

When we attended the bird-watching walk last week at our high school 50th reunion, a moment of belonging surprised me.

Mr. Cone, from the forested edge of a sports field in Andover, Mass., pointed out a robin and three cowbirds poking in the grass for insects. I wanted to exhibit expertise, so I commented that we don’t see cowbirds here on Vancouver Island. It shows I don’t know much. Today, consulting my trusty Naturalists Guide to the Victoria Region (1986), I find Brown-headed cowbirds common here in summer. Embarrassing. I won’t persist in claiming much knowledge of birds.

Mr. Cone called the group’s attention to a phoebe repeating its own name in a tree. In that bird-watching group I felt somewhat comfortable. There were maybe a dozen of us. All ages. The youngest slept attached to her mom in a snuggly. For the mom, it was a 10th reunion. Girls go to Phillips Academy now, unlike in our day. Probably in that group, only the baby knew less about birds than I did. We all, however, had turned up first thing in the morning to wander the campus edges with binoculars. Just being there must confer some membership, I felt. We few, among the hundreds, had opted to stand and listen for a phoebe.

Mr. Cone was eldest in the group, the only person in all four days of the reunion who I called Mister. He started teaching Biology at Phillips the September after we graduated, 1966. Observing and assisting birdlife on campus clearly delights him. Mr. Cone brings to life Thomas Berry’s comment that real scientists develop “…that awareness, that intimacy with the world, that capacity for presence, that capacity for exultation….”

We recalled that our Biology teacher, Mr. Sanborn, was equally connected with birds. He sponsored the Natural History Club. My best memories of Sundays at Andover are from Mr. Sanborn’s back yard and porch, trapping and tagging birds. He and Mrs. Sanborn left home on Sunday afternoons, and students manned the bird-banding station. Fastening a metal ring on the leg of a tiny chickadee required delicacy; handling an angry grackle took nerve. Banding brings you physically into contact with those other beings. I remember also feeling surprised and impressed on a Natural History Club outing when one of the students identified some little hidden bird in the forest just from hearing its voice.

Listening for the phoebe in Mr. Cone’s group felt different from looking at the cowbirds. Looking was more active. Listening required allowing. It caused me to quiet and open my brain. It let the field and trees flow into me somehow, along with the bird sounds. I felt at-home. Tears came. The moment unified that reunion weekend, our student years and the fifty in between.

The weekend had begun with a rush of dread on the Thursday afternoon. I hid it from Sherryll I think, as we parked the rental car beside the old cemetery across the road from my 12th grade dorm. Lonely outsider memories took hold. Thursday evening and Friday, however, felt OK, friendly and conversational. I learned that other boys had struggled in their own ways; other men also evolve; old men cherish old moments of goodness. The band Thursday night played ‘60s and ‘70s songs that made me dance. Friday morning I ran the Cross-Country 5k circuit, having prepared for the past year. Gerry, 50 years ago, never could run the whole route. I had something to prove. Heartbreak Hill did not make me walk on Friday morning. Now, listening for the phoebe, a gift had returned.

Gerry, the boy at Andover, experienced nature’s energy or presence or spirit. The man, Gerald, has aspired for years to reconnect. Listening for birds, it now occurred to me, might be a key. I might carry home the key. I asked you how many species you know by ear. About sixty, you said. I doubt I will get that far.

Coming back to Victoria, I did recognize the first early morning bird sounds. The neighbours have kept hens in their back yard for years, but I didn’t expect to hear them. I never hear back yard sounds from bed in the morning. I hear front yard sounds.

Sherryll and I have slept at the front of the building, in the living-dining room for the past couple years. We open a window onto Fern Street. Sherryll’s mother Emma has had the bedroom. Upstairs are empty beds we could sleep in, but Emma might not be safe alone downstairs at night. She stayed in respite care during our trip to the east coast. Returning too late in the day to bring Emma home, we slept one night in the bedroom. Hence, chicken sounds through the window.

Chickens, why not – the bird sound to which our ancestors awakened over thousands of years. My mother, for example: Christie’s childhood included chickens in the yard and a chopping block. Returning from the Great War (1914-18) and buying a farm, my grandfather would not kill animals, so Mom learned to chop. Keeping hens for eggs dates back at least to the Roman Empire. Eggs appear on a shopping list clay tablet from Roman Britain. No bird is more domestic than Gallus gallus domesticus. No bird sound more cozy than hens. Ironically, Rome gave us also glass for our windows, with which we commonly shut out birdsong.

Hens crooning and clucking is the characteristic bird sound of our planet. Any visiting extra-terrestrial would report it so. A population of 20 billion makes the chicken the world’s most numerous bird. Its numbers also make it the world’s most successful modern dinosaur.

When we were learning about evolution from Mr. Sanborn, science believed, I think, that dinosaurs all faded into extinction around 66 million years ago. Their whole fabulous planetary Era, the Mesozoic with its giant-fern jungles, drifted away. Earth awoke to the Cenozoic, our Era of birds and flowers, bees and butterflies, mammals. We supposed that the passage from Mesozoic to Cenozoic had been gradual. We didn’t know about our asteroid collision disaster in the Yucatan. It blasted the planet, we believe now, out of an old Era of Earth’s life, into a new.

We now believe also that various feathered dinosaur species survived the mass extinction. This comes as news to me; I had no idea that birds bloom on life’s dinosaur branch. In fact, bird evolution was well progressed by the time the asteroid hit. The ancestor of ducks and chickens had already separated from forerunners of ostriches, and of other modern birds.

In our Cenozoic, birds have proliferated gloriously. Now humans wrap up the Era with bird decimation: another Roman concept – putting to death one in every ten. Applied to bird species, that prediction would be conservative. Chickens however, should thrive. Their domestic status protects them. As we degrade planetary life, even the most ignorant human knows we still need chickens. Gallus gallus domesticus, our dinosaurs in the yard, peck and scratch into yet another Era. Billions, we must admit, sit crammed into tiny cages stuffing themselves on pellets and drugs. Beyond the neighbours’ laurel hedge though, chickens peck and scratch the soil.

Bird colour and song have typified the brilliant Cenozoic. Theologian, Thomas Berry (The Dream of the Earth, 1988 & 2015) called these 66 million years the lyric period of our planet. Recently, he notes, in the full flowering of Earth’s most lively Era, evolution has brought forth human mind. Earth has gained new capacity. In human mind, Berry asserts, the planet now reflects upon itself. Human mind lets Earth observe its own processes, learn its own mechanisms. Its new level of consciousness shoves life beyond the style of evolution that has developed it thus far. Earth may consciously create new creatures now, and destroy them. Genetic engineering takes over genesis.

Classic evolution no longer determines life’s becoming. Its expanded consciousness does. Us. The thought might sober. Our science, technology, economy, laws, wisdom or lack thereof, love of being or lack thereof, will determine the future of planetary existence. Which living things we eliminate, which new beings we create, depends on human choices. Classic evolution has developed life so amazingly in its first three or four billion years. Now we carry the ball. So new and so vast Earth’s investment in our frail selves, we can scarcely register our moral challenge. A brave new Era, for sure.

Thomas Berry has named it the Ecozoic. I love his hopeful choice in the term “Ecozoic Era”, “the era of the house of living beings”. “Ecozoic” expresses Berry’s intention that we humans find our at-homeness here. My own problem with habitual disconnection from nature is not solely personal. We have worked thousands of years for our perceived separateness.

Now science disturbs that perception. Science sends Earth selfies from space. We gaze down into still water and see, looking back into our eyes, a living whole planet. Absorbed always in our own reflection, “You beauty,” we say, “Who are you?” Earth’s awareness of self awakens in us. We are the planet, conscious. Separate? Hardly. Life cycles every moment its earth, air, fire and water through me. I breathe Earth’s breath and pump life’s salty blood. A whale in distant ocean slaps its fin and splashes me. I cannot exist separate from life systems, from communities within communities within communities. I live, science reveals, as a leaf of a tree. Lay axe to the tree, and I wither.

I have cut quite a few trees recently, and planted many. I have lopped, sawn and uprooted young Golden willow, Horse-chestnut, laburnum and holly trees, invaders in areas of native plant habitat that I protect and restore. I have planted Garry oak, Black hawthorne, Red alder, Pacific crab apple and others native to this valley where I live. Conflict among humans sometimes has arisen. Those gentle hen voices through the laurel hedge bring the conflict back into my mind, into my breathing, muscles and pulse.

A few years ago I planted trees in the park behind our back yards. Not just me – a community project developed beds of local native plants at three corners of the grassy field. We raised funds, found institutional partners, involved the Neighbourhood Association and the Parks Department. But we gravely offended some households around the park who didn’t want planted beds. Scars on relationships persist.

In restoration gardening, working with friends to enliven bits of habitat, I have found my retirement vocation. But it’s also political. Choices about public spaces get personal. I persist because I love working with my fellow gardeners and because the stakes are my self-respect. Will I take some part, however little or local, in reconciling us with nature, or will I play dead and grow old sour?

Natural habitat, the woods at the edge of the Andover campus were, Gerald, your Eden, where energy presence of night forest still could make your hair stand on end, where God might still speak to you on the pond at night in the voices of ducks. Turn your back on that garden. Walk out as far as you can go into the civilization that surrounds it. But you walk on a globe. Listen, you’re back again, fifty years or ten thousand later. Hear, through this garden gate, June birdsong glory in there. This gate has no lock. Lift the latch; pull; one step and you’re in. That heavy thing you pack, that self, yes. It’s good; bring it in; plant it. Birds may sing in the tree that grows from it.