14. Sturnus vulgaris


September 12, 2016

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

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


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

“By Gerald Harris”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The swirl of moving dots in the air writes:

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

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

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!


8. Larus glaucescens


July 27, 2016

Hardly any breeze this morning at seven. Leaves of the Lombardy poplars barely stir. On the big oak at the far corner of the park noisy crows raise a boundary to my back yard stillness. They flock from roosts somewhere north of here, gather in the oak and disperse for the day in town. The stillness contains voices of little brown birds, musical notes from an alarm clock in someone’s apartment, excited squirrel chatter and crow fuss in a poplar tree where I see a long tail hanging down from a branch, a raccoon. Erratic insect flight, the stillness includes, back-lit by sun that slants low across the valley to illuminate one strand of silk festooned between the birch tree and the back fence by a drifting caterpillar.

Yesterday evening in the park I identified Glaucous-winged gulls, Larus glaucescens. From the playground with Holly and Fuller, I trotted back here for my binoculars and bird books. They supported my assumption that the seagulls I might hear and see any time, any day, all year on this hillside are Glaucous-winged. Fuller watches the big gulls overhead from the swing or the climbing structure, and points to them and says “bird”. It was his second word. His first was “tree”. We are working on “crow” and “seagull” but that may take a while. He points also at the gulls that call from the roofs of apartment and condominium blocks on both sides of the park.

Identifying was not entirely easy. Local checklists offer too many gull species. The Naturalists Guide to the Victoria Region celebrates my confusion:

“Victoria is a paradise for gulls and gull watchers. Eighteen species have been recorded here. Gull identification, particularly for the immatures, is a challenge even to the birding expert, and the variations within each variety of plumage of the different species – as well as the presence of some hybrids – adds spice to the fun.”

The Glaucous-winged gull, for example, has a pure white head and body, except in those seasons when it is streaked with brown. The upper surface of it wings is pure “glaucous” (a pastel shade of blue-grey), except in the first three years of its life as it progresses through several juvenile stages of mottled browns and greys. The same “glaucous” extends to its wingtips, except for some natural variation in wingtip shade, and for the disposition of Glaucous-winged gulls to freely cross-breed, producing various wingtip effects. Identifying gulls here is a path to madness, except when it’s a symptom.

Whenever, in the past few decades, I have risen to the challenge of naming the gull that surrounds me in Victoria, I have come up always with Larus glaucescens. In 1992, for example, I must have made a New-Years resolution to get serious about birds. On the checklist in the back pages of Birds of Victoria and Vicinity on 1/1/92 I tick-marked Glaucuous-winged gull and three duck species, then apparently forgot the project. Identification, finally, is not so difficult when I sort out the key features. In Bowker Valley a large seagull with light blue-grey on its wings that extends to its wingtips is Glaucous-winged, our common resident gull.

Hundreds or thousands nest on rocks two kilometers offshore from Bowker Creek’s mouth at Oak Bay. The Important Bird Areas Canada website reports that “Chain Islets and Great Chain Island… is a site of global importance, supporting a significant breeding population of Glaucous-winged Gulls…” Great Chain Island is a treeless rock, which glaciers about 20,000 years ago scoured in long north-south grooves. Grasses and shrubs grow in the grooves. Across thousands of years, canoes launched, I expect, from Bowker Creek mouth for egg-gathering on Great Chain Island.

In Bowker Valley’s yearly round of life, people knew early June as a time for seagull eggs. The family that held rights to egg-gathering on Great Chain Island would land its canoe at the small gravel beach, bringing empty baskets. Here is Denise Titian’s description of egg-gathering, published online in Ha-Shilth-Sa, the newspaper of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council. Her family landed this year on a similar coastal islet where “…seabirds reign on the rocky reefs, depositing their black-speckled army green eggs in the swatches of seagrasses they nest in.”:

“…the family scours the island, loading up with seagull eggs as the birds circle above, squawking, squealing and dropping the occasional bird bomb.

“[Steve] Titian says they begin checking the nests in early June and do about three harvests spaced over a week.

“’They usually lay up to three eggs so we leave one in the nest and take the rest,’ he explained.

“They did their first harvest on June 12 and got about 80 eggs. Their second trip netted about 200 eggs.

“’We leave them alone for two or three days to give them a break and allow them to lay more eggs,’ Titian said.

“And when they get back to the village they give eggs freely to those that love eating them.

“The seagull egg can be used any way that a chicken egg is used but people from Ahousaht prefer them scrambled. A seagull egg is much larger than a chicken egg and the rich yolks are deep orange, almost red.”

Humans in Bowker Valley and Glaucous-winged gulls have participated from ancient times in each-others’ lives. The gulls have recycled our food wastes at our village by the shore. Clamouring, they have watched our fishers and hunters gut our catch, and have rushed in to clean up. Before the Capital Regional District began residential pick-up of compostable garbage, Sherryll and I often walked down to Oak Bay with a salmon carcass to fling onto the rocks. We enjoyed the gulls’ frenzied feeding while crows at the edges darted in for morsels. Since the first people stood at the creek mouth, the spectacle of Glaucous-winged gulls recycling salmon carcasses has entertained us.

This far up the creek, on the hillside, we might not have seen so many gulls in the past. Now they gather worms on the lawn in the park. Our food waste and our buildings attract them here. Glaucous-winged gulls roost and nest increasingly on roofs of big buildings, such as these apartments and condominiums. The roofs provide flat expanses with good visibility and few predators. Eagles leave them mostly alone.

In recent decades, more and more Bald eagles nest on southern Vancouver Island. They prey on Glaucous-winged gulls nesting on the rocks off Oak Bay. Recently I noticed a seagull wing hanging from our Bowker Valley eagle nest, high in a Douglas fir near the creek mouth. Glaucous-winged gulls may be learning to site their colonies in locations safer from eagles. Gull populations are smart like that.

Not eagles, I suspect, but ourselves, gathering eggs from offshore rocks have been Glaucous-winged gull’s most efficient predator in the past. “Predator” however, is too limited a word; it ignores our human intelligence. We learned thousands of years ago that we and the gulls depended on each other; we understood our power in the relationship; we set ourselves egg-gathering rules by which the gulls and we could thrive. Human populations are smart like that. We construct our morality around our well-being in community.

About 150 years ago we largely set aside our understanding and rules about Glaucous-winged gulls. The gold rush on the mainland attracted a new influx of people with a new mixture of moral codes, not local to Bowker Valley or the Salish Sea. Rules about gathering eggs and hunting birds broke down. Plunder ensued. We have been working, ever since, to rebuild our understanding, morality and policy.

Already 100 years ago, the rules took a big step forward. People across North America saw that species of birds were disappearing. We had made extinct the Great auk and Labrador duck, and in 1914, the Passenger pigeon. People knew it was wrong and dangerous. In 1916 we signed the Canada-United States Migratory Bird Convention to conserve birds “that are useful to man or are harmless.” It protected the Glaucuous-winged gull, a migratory bird.

Migratory? When does it migrate? I can see Glaucous-winged gulls in Fern St. Park every day of the year. The Birds of North America website provides a better word: “disperse”. “Banded birds in British Columbia”, the site reports, “disperse mostly southward along the coast.” Immature birds may drift for two years or three, for twenty kilometers or 2,000, before returning home. Juveniles from a Victoria rooftop might wander as locally as Seattle or as distant as San Diego. An immature bird I see in Fern St. Park might have coasted from Sidney, the next town up-Island, or from Anchorage, Alaska.

Glaucous-winged gull colonies breed on rocks off Oregon, Washington and BC, and along Alaska’s south and west coasts and the Aleutian island chain as far as the Commander Islands of Russia. Young birds wander to Japan and Korea. A few disperse east on Alaska’s Arctic coast. Rarely, they end-up in Europe. Last January an Irish birder, Fionn Moore, set off a Rare Bird Alert, photographing a Glaucous-winged gull in the harbour at Castletown Bree, County Cork.

Here at home, our migratory bird legislation aided gull populations. After we limited egg-gathering and hunting, Glaucous-winged gull numbers increased through most of the 1900s. We specifically protected many of their breeding colonies. BC’s provincial government enacted the Oak Bay Islands Ecological Reserve, including Great Chain Island.

Numbers of Glaucous-winged gulls increased until the 1980s. Perhaps our fabulous quantities of food waste helped. Scientists debate that question. Certainly, dense clouds of the birds have fed from our dumps. Some of us still remember the white and grey tempest of seagulls that adorned our garbage barges and ferryboats. A tourism slogan of the day was “Follow the birds to Vancouver Island”. In fact the gulls followed the ferries, anticipating the gullet-stuffing moment when crew dumped containers of restaurant leftovers astern. We no longer distribute our food waste quite so freely.

Since the mid-1980s our gulls around the Salish Sea have greatly declined. Surveys in the Oak Bay Ecological Reserve found about 2400 Glaucous-winged gulls nesting in 1986, but a thousand fewer in 2009. The authors of a study, A Century of Change in Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) Populations in a Dynamic Coastal Environment (The Condor, 2015) state that numbers breeding in the Georgia Basin fell fifty percent between the mid-1980s and 2010. They identify two likely causes: more eagles, and less of the fish on which the gulls naturally feed. Eagles have come back since we banned DDT in the ‘70s. Abundance of fish in the Salish Sea has decreased from overfishing and from destruction of their habitats.

Now, as of old, human actions dictate the fate of Glaucous-winged gull nests on Great Chain Island. In ancient times we saw and thought local. You knew it made a difference whether you gathered all three eggs in a nest, or left one. Now we see and think more global. That’s good; clearly it matters that we act internationally to stop DDT and regulate hunting and fishing. But local disappears from our mind. You live in Bowker Valley but you’ve never heard of Great Chain Island. I hadn’t until now. You disturb the nesting gulls, not consciously, not gathering eggs, but unaware, partying on the beach.

Bowker Valley itself disappears from our wisdom. Twice a day you drive across the valley and the creek in its culvert under Cedar Hill Cross Road at the Shelbourne intersection, and never know. Decades you live here before you stand on a rock at Bowker Creek mouth and watch Glaucous-winged gulls dip and splash in fresh water. People you can’t see stand with you: Elders, ancient mind of our community and place. Gulls, crows, eagles, feasting on Chum salmon that your imagination might remember spawning and dying here entertain the Elders.

7. Calypte anna


July 23, 2016

5:30. Loud cries of seagulls dominate the back yard this morning. Internal combustion engines intermittently rumble from Fort Street. Hospital hums. Leaves rustle. Intense light on the horizon, straight out from the fire escape, between waving leaves of horse chestnut, dazzles. Some pathway of response in the front of my brain opens and brightens into entranced anticipation.

The crow may not share my awe. It crosses above the garden, its wing-beats plainly efficient, its “caw” dispassionately functional. Sense of the sacred in fiery sunrise may be a capacity of humans more than crows.

By 5:45 the round sun sits blazing across the valley. It illuminates the upper half of the poplars and the top of the thicket. A tiny bird hovers above the poplars, then zooms down to perch on an elderberry twig. Its head and throat shine like dancers’ sequins, radiant magenta: an Anna’s hummingbird.

Calypte anna is our common year-round resident hummingbird in Victoria. Gorgeous head and throat clearly identify the adult male, but I haven’t been seeing it. I learn today as I find out more about Anna’s hummingbirds that he doesn’t always exhibit his brilliance. Commonly his head shows more blackish, green or yellowy tones. He flashes the magenta as a territorial display. In fact the high dive I saw is part of his display. The dive makes a J shape as he pulls out of it. When he spreads his tail feathers to put on the brakes, they vibrate in a loud chirp.

He ruffs-up his head feathers to flaunt eye-catching iridescence. The feathers themselves are not colourful. Their vibrancy results from translucence and hollowness. Some light bounces off the outside of the feather, but some passes through it, through the inner air pocket, reflects back from its inner surface and shines out through the feather. Two streams of light, one bounced from the outside and one from inside, merge. Their wave-forms harmonize to amazing effect.

Around 6:00 I was listening to faintly-audible clicking sounds from the thicket when two hummingbirds shot overhead in a chase, out of sight above the roof. Sources describe the Anna’s main sound as a “chip”, “chick” or “tzip”. I heard it as a remembered electrical “snick” of overhead wires on a country road, walking, in terror of the dark, between Johnny Baines’ house where I could watch Walt Disney on TV and the lighted home porch where Mom was waiting. In that decade of my childhood, the 1950s, unknown to most of us, the first few Anna’s were crossing the border as summer visitors to southern coastal British Columbia.

Anna’s is a California bird. It accompanied West Coast suburban culture to BC, along with two-toned cars and ranch-style houses. The species, of course, vastly predates suburbia. Its native habitat is chaparral, dry manzanita scrublands of California and the Baja.

Some bushes in California chaparral may have evolved specifically for pollination by Calypte anna. A gooseberry, for example, Ribes speciosum, flowers like a fuchsia. Its blossom, long, scarlet, narrow, fleshy, pendulous, discourages landing or entry by a bee, and favours needle bill and extended tongue of a hummingbird hovering beneath it. Anthers and stamens extend out long from the flower, to rub pollen onto feathers of the bird’s face. Scientists assert that the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry evolved as a hummingbird-adapted species around 1.5 million years ago. The bird, they believe, is a million years older than the bush.

In Earth’s long story, Calypte anna and its chaparral habitat appear as a recent sparkle. Chaparral blooms in the months of winter, the rainy season, breeding time for the Anna’s. Males claim their territories in November and December around another gooseberry species, Ribes malvaceum, known as pink chaparral or chaparral currant. Flowers of ribes and manzanitas supply nesting birds with nectar and with small insects the blossoms attract. Most northerly-wintering of hummingbirds, Anna’s requires much insect protein. Fledglings are leaving the nest by early spring when fuchsia-flowered gooseberry is blooming for them.

Through summer’s long drought, chaparral of California lowlands quits flowering. Gooseberry shrubs stand brown as dead sticks. Anna’s hummingbird heads for cooler climes, the mountains, where flowers bloom later.

From chaparral, its ancient home, Anna’s hummingbird has adopted new habitat in the past century. Eucalyptus trees first invited it out. Australians brought them to California in the 1850s gold rush. By the early 1900s Eucalyptus globulus, the blue gum, served as the common windbreak tree for southern California farms and highways. It bloomed from November to April, Calypte anna’s breeding season. The tree naturalized, and the hummingbird tapped into a vast new source of nectar and bugs in blue gum’s fuzzy, pale-yellow flowers. A single tree could provide territories for several Anna’s males.

Californians planted the blue gum also in cities for shade. The eucalyptus established as the common grand tree of civic park and college campus. I often walked in eucalyptus woodlands around San Francisco when I attended university there. By the 1920s and ‘30s Anna’s hummingbirds were moving into town. California gardens, irrigated and vivid with exotic bloom, welcomed the hummingbird year-round.

California gardeners, captivated, made efforts to lure the birds closer. Nancy L. Newfield and Barbara Nielsen trace the US and Canadian history of gardening for hummers in their book, Hummingbird Gardens (1996). They report that Ben and Dorothy May Tucker, south of Los Angeles, were developing hummingbird feeders already in the 1920s: “Their first efforts were with shot glasses, which they filled with sugar-water and set in a row on their porch railing.” Feeders, commercially manufactured and widely advertised, appeared in many gardens in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Also, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Calypte anna was expanding its breeding range beyond California, northward, up the coastal zone of gardens that bloom in all seasons. Anna’s reached the northern extreme of that zone here around the Salish Sea. We could make a feeble claim as the northern ragged edge of natural chaparral habitat. Our single manzanita speciesdominates a few dry, rocky ridges, along with our fuschia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes lobbii. Neither, however, blooms in winter. Anna’s settled here, not for our natural habitats, but for our ever-flowering gardens.

The bird began sampling Victoria’s garden flowers during its summer wandering season, around 1958. By 1986, The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region directs us to the eastern suburbs, near the University of Victoria, where “A pair of Anna’s Hummingbirds has been a regular sight….” The Naturalist’s Guide notes, “Within the past 30 years Anna’s has colonized the Victoria area, and is now an uncommon resident wintering at feeders.”

Without hummingbird feeders, could Calypte anna cope with our winter? In Hummingbird Gardens, Newfield and Nielsen quote Seattle biologist David Hutchinson: “I think in most winters, under most conditions, the Anna’s is viable here….But in really bad winters feeders are probably crucial to their survival.” Climate has warmed in the decades since the biologist offered his opinion. The “really bad winters” persist mainly as memories of old-timers. Perhaps the bird could manage here now, without feeders. Calypte anna has other strategies for winter survival.

It passes winter nights, for example, in torpor. Body temperature drops from its hot daytime norm of around 400C to approximately 100C. Breathing reduces from more than 200 breaths per minute to less than ten. The torpid bird stands, feathers fluffed, eyes closed, slowly burning fat it has made from sugar during the day.

It sips in winter from sapsucker holes. The woodpecker taps orderly rows of shallow wells to collect tree sap. Calypte anna industriously works the sapsucker trees as it would a flowering bush. The authors of Hummingbird Gardens quote Penny Rose of Seattle: “Sap has the same sugar content as nectar, and it attracts insects too, so the Anna’s is probably feeding on the sap and the insects.” The Birds of North America website reports observations of female Anna’s feeding nectar to their nestlings early in the day, but switching to insects in the afternoon. “Insect protein,” the site comments, “lasts longer as a food reserve at night.”

Newfield and Nielsen interviewed hummingbird gardeners in Victoria. Ian McTaggart-Cowan told them, “There’s always something in bloom here. Plus there are lots of insects. You can look out at any time and see insects, little gnats and so on – and you can see the Anna’s up in the trees going after them like flycatchers.”

McTaggart–Cowan reported that Anna’s nested in his garden in February, when his forsythia and witch hazel began flowering. Lyndis Davis, another Victoria gardener commented, “In winter, the Anna’s regularly visit a Viburnum ‘Bodnantense’ that begins to flower in fall and continues until April.” The gardeners noted that Anna’s also frequented their earliest-blooming native shrubs, such as salmonberry, red-flowering currant, Oregon grape and “a local currant (ribes lobbii) that resembles a small fuchsia.”

Both of the Victoria gardeners maintained feeders. “I hang three….”, Davis said, “Since I did that I’ve had both rufous and Anna’s nesting on my property. They’ve each laid claim to a different feeding station.” “During cold spells,” reported McTaggart-Cowan, “I’ll get up when it’s black-dark to hang out a feeder. As soon as I flip on the light and step outside, a hummingbird will be waiting. I don’t now how they manage to do that, since they go into torpor at night. But the little rascal will somehow wake himself up out of torpor so he can have a drink of nice warm syrup – sort of like having a cup of hot chocolate in the morning.”

Personally, I’ve been suspicious of hummingbird feeders, and of bird feeders generally. We continue to demolish natural habitat (California chaparral, for example), while our feeders create a back yard illusion of plentiful birdlife. Perhaps I have assumed that people who hang red plastic oversized flowers on the balcony don’t care about habitat. These gardeners are helping me question my assumption.

Ian McTaggart-Cowan in particular:“Zoologist, conservationist and television presenter,” his Wikipedia biography records, “he has been called ‘the father of Canadian ecology’.” Few Canadians have strived more effectively to educate us toward harmony with our natural world. Locally, he led in founding our beloved nature sanctuary at Swan Lake. Here was the Chancellor of the University of Victoria on his freezing back deck in the dark bringing sugar water to Anna’s hummingbirds.

Feeding wild birds as a hobby motivates, I learn, one third of North American adults. Only gardening ranks more popular. People who feed Anna’s hummingbirds in winter take it seriously. Newfield and Nielsen interviewed gardeners who “…rig up an electric light bulb to keep the feeder warm. Others keep several filled feeders inside the house and rotate them as needed…. Some wrap warm woolen socks; others hang them under a heat lamp.”

A recent message from my sister Sheilagh may get me closer to the truth about feeders: “Yesterday as I stood on my porch a hummingbird hovered about 18 inches from my face for about 10 seconds, checking me out. I felt awe and total happiness.”

On the internet, descriptors I find of hummingbird moments include “awe”, “wonder”, “bliss”, “harmony”, “unity”. Maintaining a feeder brings people closer to a creature whose presence declares to us the intrinsic amazing beauty simply of being. The Anna’s hummingbird male assures me also that showing-off is cosmically valid.

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.