17. Junco hyemalis

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October 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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