22. Pipilo maculatus

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February 27, 2017

Starting about noon, the front porch traps whatever heat the sun might offer. Today, sunshine warmed my hands as I sat on the bench, well bundled. From several days indoors unwell, this was my first foray to the garden. Along with sunrays, I absorbed small bird sounds, buzzing, quiet rasps of the Bewick’s wren in the thicket. Snowdrops have almost finished blooming in the perennial bed and yellow crocuses are up. Winter is letting go.

My symptoms last week alarmed us. Slight paralysis on one side of my face made us fear that something bad was happening in my head. I sat in the passenger seat and in medical waiting and examination rooms as Holly and Fuller cared for a dad and granddad with health issues. We found out that nothing bad is happening. My face again works perfectly well. But an event like that makes you think. This morning I resigned from the board of the neighbourhood association and from leadership roles in its committees.

You need to stop and listen to the message from a health scare, or what would be the point of it? “Face this,” it said to me. “You’re paralyzed. You have not manifested community leadership such as you imagined was in you. People around you do not open to each other’s truths. Neither do you. Battle darkens your heart with enmity and political expedience. People who trusted you deserve better from you. Before, in greenspace projects at Fern Street, Begbie Green, Emerson, Adanac, your little group heard each voice, welcomed each viewpoint, opened border checkpoints between your individual realities. Amazingly smart and effective mind emerged among you. Now factions snarl in separate cages.” Time to leave neighbourhood politics.

The sun offered surprising heat on the front porch. I had to remove a sweater and fold away my hat’s earflaps. Another bird in the thicket scuffled on the ground in oak leaves. Looking deep into shade from the sunny porch I could barely discern its orange flanks: Spotted towhee – orange sides, black back with white streaks and spots, red eye – the only towhee we see on Vancouver Island. It revived my self-esteem; my gardening in this yard provides enough overhead cover with enough leaf litter to attract a towhee to feed here.

“THE DENSE UNDERBRUSH OF GARDENS…”, announces my old copy of Birds of Victoria and Vicinity, “… is (a) favourite haunt of this colourful ground dweller.” This winter a towhee has often visited along with other sparrows in mixed feeding flocks. With spring it will soon seek better habitat for its nesting territory. I wish we could provide it here. Birds of Victoria and Vicinitysays that the nest would be close to the ground, “…well hidden in a thicket or a garden shrub that has trapped a few of last year’s fallen leaves.” We can supply dense underbrush and leaf litter here, but not a wide enough extent of it. A study in Portland showed that Spotted towhees choose breeding territories in natural areas as small as one hectare. This hillside can’t offer that much.

Anyway, it’s best that towhees don’t nest here. The cat would kill the fledglings. The black cat from next door owns this front yard for night hunting. On spring and summer mornings I find remains of juvenile birds on the lawn. Cats are a major predator for Spotted towhees in cities. Amy Shipley (2013) and her collaborators in Portland entitled their study: Residential Edges as Ecological Traps: Postfledgling Survival of a Ground-Nesting Passerine in a Forested Urban Park.They found that Spotted towhees prefer to nest along the edges of their densely-bushy breeding habitat, and that high mortality results for the young birds:

“…fledglings near edges had a far higher probability of dying. All deaths were from predation, and at least 11 of 16 predation events were attributable to Domestic Cats (Felis catus) and Western Screech-Owls (Megascops kennicottii).”

I wouldn’t begrudge a Screech-Owl its meals of fledglings from the yard, but the cat predation bothers me. Environment Canada scientist Peter Blancher’s article, Estimated Number of Birds Killed by House Cats (Felis catus) in Canada(2013), sets the number between 100 million and 350 million per year. Feral cats account for about 60% of the total, and house pets about 40%. To be fair to the black cat from next door, I also find plenty of dead juvenile rats on the lawn. And Screech-Owls, do they hunt this yard at night? It’s an appealing thought, but no. Once “fairly common” on Victoria’s bird checklist, Screech-Owl has declined to “rare”. Barred owls have replaced them. We often see a Barred owl roosting in the neighbourhood, and I suppose it works this hillside after dark.
A daytime predator bird here would be Cooper’s hawk. One patrols our block sometimes. Spotted towhee’s eye-catching colour and contrast must make it a good hawk target, but the little bird generally hides its garish Halloween plumage by feeding under cover. They are specially built for it. John Davis closely observed feeding towhees in California in the 1950s. His paper, Comparative Foraging Behavior of the Spotted and Brown Towhees (The Auk, 1957), shows that Spotted towhee has evolved its legs specifically for its life on the ground amid leaf litter and woody debris.

Hopping for locomotion takes far more energy than walking or running. Davis points out that every hop propels the bird fullyoff the ground, then uses further energy to absorb the shock of landing. He’s right; try hopping for five minutes. But the ground where Spotted towhees feed favours hopping. Davis comments that they rarely need to run for cover because they feed there most of the time. Debris and vegetation would obstruct a walking and running little bird. And hopping benefits the towhee in flinging aside surface leaves to expose the damp layer beneath.

Spotted towhee’s leg and foot muscles evolved for the hop-scratch. Davis describes the “…sharp backward thrust of both feet….(as) strong claws dig into the soil cover, which is kicked as far as three feet to the rear….” The bird shifts backward in the kick, lands and hops forward again to repeat the motion. A burst of five or six vigorous hop-scratches opens a foraging pit, a depression about 10 cm wide and perhaps 20 cm long. The bird pauses to peck at bugs and seeds exposed in the pit, then hops to a new scratching place. It may proceed steadily through its foraging area for an hour at a time, covering many metres and opening many pits.

John Davis studied the towhees at Hastings Natural History Reservation for thousands of hours over many years. I’m glad we have made space and time in our era for such meticulous observation. The eminent ornithologist Joseph Grinnell founded the Hastings Reservation in 1937. He saw an opportunity for biologists to track the long succession of farmland returning to nature. The Hastings family donated their cattle ranch, 600 hectares in the Carmel Valley, to the University of California. UC’s first biological field station, Hastings served as a model for the university’s Natural Reserve System of thirty-six stations on 55,000 hectares. John Davis became Hastings’ manger and studied there for three decades.

Today’s Spotted towhee in the front yard, where will it relocate for nesting? The literature doesn’t answer clearly.It reveals that Pipilo maculatus populations on Vancouver Island and around the Salish Sea belong to the oregonus subspecies. Our Pipilo maculatus (oregonus) is the darkest of 21 Spotted towhee races. The back of its males is blackest; its white spots and streaks most minimal. Oregonus range includes the west coast of Oregon and Washington, and BC’s south coast. Its populations appear mostly resident year-round, with some short-distance migration. Birds may move down from the mountains for the winter, or slightly south on the coast.

The fall migration data from Rocky Point Bird Observatory makes me wonder though. RPBO volunteers capture huge numbers of Spotted towhee in September. It appears to rank as one of the five most numerous songbirds migrating south from the Island to the US. The RPBO information does not fit easily with a picture of a mostly-resident bird. So I ask local birders at the online forum, BCVIBIRDS.

One of them comments that a Spotted towhee banded by his group in the fall in Nanaimo died the following spring near Portland, Oregon, more than 400 km south. The Nanaimo study also recaptured banded Spotted towhees close to the tagging location at various seasons. “So some individuals migrate, while others don’t”, he concludes. Another birder notes that banded towhees from Rocky Point Bird Observatory have died locally (Sooke, Saaninch, Victoria) as well as more distantly, across the straits in Sequim, WA and in the mainland mountains near Pemberton, BC.

Another participant in the on-line forum comments that all the towhees in his yard disappear in August, after breeding season. Towhees re-appear there in late September, so it looks like a different or re-shuffled winter population replaces the breeding population. And another Vancouver Island birder adds that some of the Spotted towhees he observes during migration and in winter display more prominent white markings than do our coastal oreganussubspecies. Pipilo maculatus races arcticus and curtatus both breed in BC’s southern interior and both show more white. Perhaps arcticus or curtatus populations migrate to and through the Island. So where will today’s Spotted towhee in the front yard relocate for nesting?

It might stay here in Bowker Valley. I can think of spots with at least a hectare of dense cover: Mount Tolmie, Cedar Hill Park, University of Victoria, maybe Summit Park. How many Spotted towhee territories does the valley support. I want to know; in fact I hereby promise myself to find out. And what fun! The task is to walk Bowker Valley’s most beautiful places on spring mornings at civil twilight, and listen.

Civil twilight – the term is new to me. John Davis’ study on Spotted towhee song, Singing behavior and the gonad cycle of the Rufous-Sided Towhee (The Condor, 1958), indicates that I can depend on the males to be singing in their territories on spring mornings during civil twilight. (“Rufous-sided” was another name for “Spotted” towhee.) Searching “civil twilight” online took me first to the site of a four-piece rock band from Cape Town, South Africa. Further search revealed that dawn unfolds in three phases, “nautical”, “astronomical” and “civil”. The period of “civil dawn” (or “civil twilight”) begins when the sun climbs to six degrees below the horizon. It ends at the moment of sunrise. Today,February 27, civil dawn occurred between 6:27 and 6:58 am. It gets earlier as spring progresses. By May 15, for example, I can expect the male towhees to be singing in the morning at 4:55.

“Singing” – the term is used loosely when applied to the Spotted towhee. It ranks among our least musical songbirds, producing loud rattling trills, loud nasal squawks and loud sharp chirps. To the winter garden it contributed lively, assertive presence. And even my inexpert ears will be able to locate the trill of males in their breeding territories. If I take time to listen closely, I might be amazed. Each male will perform his individual trill repertoire during civil twilight, his own sequence and variation of tone, volume and speed – his unique statement in his local dialect.

The sun went down today at 5:54. Civil twilight will persist until 6:25. I want to make best use of my civil twilight. What matters most to me? Before I quiet and watch nautical twilight deepen horizon colours, before I turn and watch astronomical twilight bring out stars, before dark at 7:38, what song might I sing?

 

 

21. Regulus calendula

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February 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.