20. Sphyrapicus ruber

IMG_2385January 5, 2017

Chatter of House sparrows filled the back yard at 3:30, an hour before sunset. Their quick shifts perked up trees, shrubs and the ground. A Bewick’s wren clambered and poked on the bark of a trunk. A junco flitted through the garden. In the park a Song sparrow employed its two-footed hop-scratch in the leaves under the birch, and robins enlivened lawn and trees.

By 4:00 sun lit only the treetops, kindling seed cones orange on the Douglas fir at the far end of the park. Bare twigs of the garden thicket did not hide the towhee sitting inside. I reminded myself to open to this place, to make the small motion of mind that brings me alive to it.

By 4:15 sun was gone from this east-facing hillside, but still lit up the tallest poplars in the valley bottom. The Bewick’s wren, Song sparrow and towhee continued to work the back yard. New action high in the horse-chestnut tree caught my attention. A woodpecker was breaking into the globe of a large wasp nest from last summer, ripping and flinging bits of paper. In twilight I saw white markings down a black back. Almost all of the bird’s head appeared dark red. A Red-breasted sapsucker. Last week, at New Years, Sherryll and I watched one beside a trail.

She insisted that I stop and look. Our walk had just begun and myGoals-Fitnessapp was tracking an 8K session. I didn’t want to stop. I know what’s good for me though. Sherryll is a strong walker, but she pauses along the trail to thank individual trees and birds, which annoys me but helps me see. A woodpecker at the path’s edge was gleaning in the bark of an alder, not shy of us, combing for insects. On my iBird Canada app I tapped “British Columbia”, “Tree-clinging-like”, and “Medium (9-16 in)” and got seven matches, woodpeckers. All had markings of red or yellow around the head, but only Red-breasted sapsucker had the entirely red head and throat. We watched until the bird moved into the woods out of sight.

So today I recognized the Red-breasted sapsucker demolishing the wasp nest. Recognized rather than identified. A ten-year-old girl made that distinction in a radio interview I heard recently. She had just completed a birding “big year”, seeing or hearing 227 species. She said that birders prefer to “recognize” rather than “identify” birds. It’s like the difference between identifying a suspect in a police line-up and recognizing a friend on the street. This winter in this yard, most of the birds feel to me happily familiar. This is their place and mine, and I recognize myself at home with them.

I don’t expect to see a Red-breasted sapsucker here often. Birds of Victoria and Vicinity describes it as uncommon in the area and rare in the city, preferring rural woodlands. The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region directs us to damper locales, west toward cedar and hemlock rainforest or north to mixed fir and maple woods. Winter is probably our best time to see them in town.

This winter the Audubon Christmas bird counters in Duncan, 50K up-island from Victoria, saw BC’s highest number of Red-breasted sapsuckers. Thousands that nest in the interior of the province move out to the coast in autumn, while those that breed here around the Salish Sea remain resident year-round. I would guess that the individual today at the wasp nest was a migrant from the interior, wintering on the coast, seeking insects and suet blocks in the neighbourhood. Does it also maintain sap wells around here somewhere?

Sapsuckers consume tree sap in all seasons. The BC interior, where sap freezes in the trees, cannot serve as winter habitat. Even on the coast, prolonged icy weather in some winters can be deadly. The number of Red-breasted sapsuckers in the province fluctuates extremely, and appears to crash in years with extended cold snaps on the coast. Researchers Wolf Ziller and David Stirling reported on a possible example of such a population disaster on the islands of Haida Gwaii. In 1950 the mean January temperature at the town of Masset was -50C. (230 F.) In an article for the Forestry Chronicle (1961) they note:

“Sapsucker holes drilled at the base of large hemlocks on Moresby Island indicate that the birds were attempting to find food by pecking through thick bark near ground level where cambium was not yet frozen.”

Normally, Red-breasted sapsuckers excavate their sap wells in thinner bark, higher and on younger trees. Walkers in woods on Vancouver Island often see the pattern of square holes they carve. It begins as a row of short slits across the trunk. Each slit pierces the bark to the layer of phloem cells that transport sap. The bird eats the phloem and scoops the liquid that oozes into the slit. The sapsucker tongue has evolved with a brush at the end for licking. They should be called “saplappers” really.

The Red-Breasted, Sphyrapicus ruber, regularly works a circuit of many wells on several trees. It slurps accumulated sap and gradually enlarges the slit into a rough square, resulting in a row of squares across the trunk. As they run dry the bird cuts new slits below. Many rows of squares gradually extend in columns down the trunk. If you see that pattern on a tree hereabouts, Sphyrapicus ruber almost certainly engraved it. The species’ closest cousins, S. varius, Yellow-bellied sapsucker, and S.nuchalis, Red-naped sapsucker, leave similar traces on trees, but rarely stray onto Vancouver Island.

For nesting, the three sapsucker cousin species have BC nicely divided among them. The Red-breasted population centres in mild coastal climate, in coniferous rainforest such as at Haida Gwaii. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers breed mainly in boreal forest of northeastern BC, and migrate far east and south for winter. Red-naped sapsuckers prefer aspen groves of the dry southern interior for nesting. They winter in the US southwest and Mexico. Our Sphyrapicus ruber’s breeding range overlaps with both other species in hybrid zones.

Able to interbreed successfully, ruber, varius and nuchalis were officially lumped until 1985 as races of Yellow-bellied sapsucker. Why did the American Ornithologists Union award Sphyrapicus ruber its separate species status? The more I look into the question, the less simple the answer becomes. Scientists use the term “species” rather pliably, it turns out. Various definitions and standards may apply.

Red-breasted sapsucker defies the most common definition of “species” by interbreeding with Yellow-bellied and Red-naped, and producing fertile offspring. The hybrids can successfully breed. Ruber, varius and nuchalis gene pools do not remain fully isolated from one-another.

Genetically, Red-breasted and Red-naped sapsuckers are the most alike of all bird species. The similarity of their genes would better qualify them for subspecies status. Ruber, with its deeply red head, looks strikingly different from nuchalis, but merely reducing the amount of red carotenoid pigment in ruber’s head feathers would produce an almost typical-appearing Red-naped sapsucker.

Scientists believe that, ruber, nuchalis and varius have been diverging during and since most recent Ice Age. That period contained colder and warmer times, glacial advances and retreats. Variations in climate and ice probably separated the birds’ breeding ranges at some times, but allowed merging and mixing at other times. Around a million years ago, common ancestors of Red-breasted ruber and Red-naped nuchalis began to differentiate from ancestors of Yellow-bellied varius. Later, maybe 500,000 years ago, ruber and nuchalis started to sort apart from one another. Recently, 25,000 to 11,000 years ago during the last glacial advance, isolated populations of Red-breasted sapsucker likely persisted in refugia on Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island. In warmer climate since then, ruber’s breeding range has intersected again with its cousins, allowing some flow of genes among them.

Calling Red-breasted sapsucker a species recognizes that it has passed a point of no-return in differentiating from its cousins. Genetic mixing among them tends to stay in the hybrid zones of range overlap, not spread much into the wider populations. The hybrid birds seem not to fit in well. They are less successful at passing their genes along to the next generation. Ruber’s distinctly red head may be a factor. Red-breasted sapsuckers prefer mates that look like them. Another factor might be spring migration habits. Ruber has its own timing for arrival in its breeding areas and for courtship. Also, it is distinct ecologically from varius and nuchalis. They do not share Red-breasted sapsucker’s intrinsic fit in coastal rainforest community. The whole package of differences – appearance, physical structure, body chemistry and behaviour – separate Sphyrapicus ruber enough for the American Ornithologists Union to call it a species.

That term has posed a problem for science ever since Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species changed our understanding of how living things come to be. Darwin recognized the problem:

“I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other…. No one definition has satisfied all naturalists: yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of species. Generally the term includes the unknown element of a distinct act of creation.”

People need common agreement about the different kinds of beings and their names. Prior to 1859 we knew that a “species”, any distinct kind of being, had been created complete, on-the-spot, at-the-moment. Since Darwin and Wallace we know that becoming a distinct kind of being is a process. It advances over centuries or millennia. Speciation is a long conversation in which a physical environment, its living community and a new idea are tussling, modifying, attaining a good enough match-up to become a long-term habit.

Our wet Northwest coast environment, its rainforest community and the Red-breasted sapsucker idea have worked out their fit. Each defines the other. Sphyrapcus ruber has become a keystone species here. Its sap wells contribute food to at least forty-eight bird species, six mammals and dozens of arthropods. Hummingbirds literally follow the sapsucker on its route around its wells, both for sap and for insects it attracts. Availability of sap wells may affect winter survival for Anna’s hummingbird, and migration routes and timing for Rufous hummingbird. Red-breasted sapsucker nest holes provide nest and roost sites for many forest vertebrates. Tree swallow and Violet-green swallow populations depend on them, and Northern flying squirrels may also.

The sapsucker also helps renew mature forest. Sphyrapicus ruber prefers to excavate sap wells in trees that are already unhealthy. The wounds allow fungi to inoculate and hasten decay. Punctures through the bark near the ground in mature conifers, such as Ziller and Stirling described in Haida Gwaii, can let in fungus at the roots. The rot causes giant trees to fall, which opens gaps in the canopy. A burst of new growth results in the openings and maintains diversity in the rainforest community.

Becoming a species is more about linking than separating. We might view speciation as a process in ecosystem for expanding the community’s network of interdependence, its variety and complexity. Same with individuation in humans. We become uniquely ourselves in the give-and-take of matching-up with family, community and place. I modify and discover myself as Sherryll and I negotiate a walk in the woods and a stop to watch a sapsucker, as I garden with native habitat in the yard, the park, the valley, the streambank, as I fight for it, labour with the other gardeners, and include Fuller and Emma.

Next morning I go out to dump compost on the pile. The sun isn’t up yet. From the fire escape I recognize an Anna’s hummingbird tick somewhere above me and a Bewick’s wren rasp somewhere below. We’re home.

15. Colaptes auratus

DSC01388

September 14, 2016

Sitting on the fire escape this morning I listened and entered the quiet there, inside the city noise. With vacuum cleaner drone and child’s harmonica blast from apartments, and garden equipment rip from a condominium block, I noted that, “…it would take a fairly robust bird voice to register over the machinery.” But a flicker’s “klee-yer” did cut through. I followed it across the park and down the lane. On the ground under a pine tree a big grey bird hammered a hole in the ground with her woodpecker bill. Her necklace (a crescent of black on the chest) and her black-speckled underparts confirmed Northern flicker, Colaptes auratus. I use the pronoun “her” because I saw no scarlet moustache.

Watching a flicker has sometimes a numinous quality for me – a magic, mystical or spiritual feeling. And what a striking bold beauty! Our Pacific Northwest subspecies is the “red-shafted” Colaptes auratus cafer. Red-shafted refers to the sockeye salmon hue of wings and tail that flight reveals. Standing on the ground Northern flicker displays its prominent black necklace, tailband and speckles against its gentle greys and browns.

That special numinous quality for me developed in the 1970s. I was researching an essay about salmon streams that once chuckled where the city of Vancouver now roars. In the archives I found a memoir by Chief August Jack Khatsalano, a charismatic and deeply cultured resident of early Vancouver. His family had lived there from before the city. Chief Khatsalano remembered their homes and village sites. I visited Jericho Beach Park, looking for any trace of a feast house his grandfather built. The memoir recounts that as a boy August Jack saw two old doctors there, the last living of eight renowned medicine men, shamanic healers of his grandfather’s era.

I think I found the right spot in Jericho Beach Park, but no trace of the feast house. A mountain ash tree stood there now, in Vancouver’s dull winter, bright with red berries. Feeding on them, two big grey birds swayed under frail branches. I glimpsed a red stripe across a cheek, a broad black necklace on a grey chest, and the mandarin lining of a wide-fanned tail. Flickers. Then starlings hit the mountain ash, screeching dozens of them. The scene was red berries and swarming black bodies. Then just the black. When they swarmed off, a few berries and two grey birds remained. Those flickers, in my heart, were the two old doctors that August Jack had seen almost a century before. Flickers began to represent, for me, the Elders, the spirit of place, the accumulating wisdom of community and ecosystem to which one might turn for guidance.

So I was glad to hear a flicker across Fern Street Park this morning. I haven’t noticed them here all summer. We will hear more as autumn progresses. The literature describes our red-shafted subspecies as short-distance migrants. Summer finds Colaptes auratus cafer breeding eastward in British Columbia as far as the Rockies. When winter threatens to cover the ground there with snow, they move west and south. The food they mainly seek is ants, which are most available from bare ground. The bird under the pine tree this morning was most likely eating ants, flicking her long, barbed tongue out to collect them.

Our winters around Victoria produce little snow. Flickers may easily excavate for insects here. Fruits from bushes and trees augment the diet. In the back yard we see flickers feeding on red-osier dogwood berries and elderberries in autumn. In the front yard we see them on the holly tree in late winter after frost sweetens the berries and starts them fermenting. Flickers that breed around Victoria need not migrate south in winter, and birds from the freezing interior of the province join them here. Red-shafted flickers that nest around Riske Creek, for example, in the Chilcoten ranchlands, winter in Victoria and as far south as Sacramento.

Riske Creek flickers contribute much to our understanding of the species. Karen Wiebe, a professor from the University of Saskatchewan, has led summer fieldwork at Riske Creek for two decades. Scientific papers on Colaptes auratus have poured forth. We have recently learned from Riske Creek flickers, for example, that the black necklace on the bird I saw this morning communicates. Last year (2015) The Auk published an article, Melanin plumage ornaments in both sexes of Northern Flicker are associated with body condition and predict reproductive output independent of age.

Flickers’ prominent black markings speak to other flickers in breeding season. They inform about a bird’s maturity and physical condition. Prospective mates notice the size of those ornaments, and the blackness. A female’s necklace might be at its widest and blackest on a healthy bird in her third year. The healthiest male in at least his second year might display the widest black tailband. How black is black? A bird in the best physical condition is able to most densely pigment its ornament feathers with melanin. I might not notice the difference. A good clothes shopper or a breeding flicker would though. Sherryll has often pointed out to me the brown-ness or blue-ness of garments that I called black. In the study at Riske Creek the investigators used a spectrometer to measure the blackness of black.

It appeared that females displaying necklaces most dense with melanin pigment most attracted the opposite sex. Likewise males with the widest tailbands. When those two paired, they brought the greatest number of chicks safe through all the hazards of the nest to successfully fledge out. Thus the female I watched this morning spoke vital truth in her necklace. Wellbeing of the population depends on it.

The Riske Creek researchers also measured the mustache of males.  They concluded that in Colaptes auratus cafer the red stripe behind the bill, or lack of it, functions mainly to announce maleness or femaleness. The sexes look otherwise similar. Some basic sorting statement is required. But not all mustaches are red at Riske Creek. Many are black, a characteristic of Yellow-shafted flickers, Colaptes auratus aurates. Breeding range of the two Northern flicker subspecies overlaps there. Hybrids result. In autumn the hybrids migrate mainly west and south with the Red-shafted population. So in Victoria in winter we see varied combinations of cafer and aurates markings. The Red-shafted race shows red-orange flight feathers, mid-grey head and face, and the red mustache in males. Yellow-shafted flickers exhibit flight feathers of custardy-rich yellow; the face is cinnamon-beige, with the black mustache in males; the back of the head is grey, with a red crescent. Hybrids carry any blend of the above. Victoria birders see them all.

Hybrid flickers surprised John James Audubon in 1843. Audubon had journeyed through aurates range – he called them Golden-winged woodpeckers – up the Missouri River toward its headwaters in the Rockies.  Around the confluence with Yellowstone River he observed a group of five flickers that varied remarkably in colour. Individuals in the group had flight feathers ranging from yellow to red, including in-between salmony pink. He predicted that they would “puzzle all the naturalists in the world.” And indeed hosts of naturalists have studied hybrid flickers ever since.

Between ranges of Red- and Yellow-shafted flickers, a zone of hybridization extends thousands of kilometers. It roughly traces the Continental Divide from Alaska to New Mexico. The range of Yellow-shafted aurates extends vastly east and north to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and to arctic treeline. Red-shafted cafer flickers range west and south to the Pacific coast and Central America. Science generally suggests that the two subspecies and their east-west split stem from the most recent ice age. Prior to it, a single race of Northern flicker may have ranged in forest from Atlantic to Pacific.

The Wisconsin glaciation spread ice over the northern half of North America, starting around 75,000 years ago. South of the ice, climate pushed forest east and west toward the coasts. Between Atlantic and Pacific forest, it created cold desert, treeless, uncongenial to flickers. Eastern and western populations, physically separated, may have evolved then into Red- and Yellow-shafted races. They metabolized carotenoids differently.

Flickers get their reds and yellows from carotenoid pigments in their food. Exoskeletons of ants and other bugs provide the pigments, as do berries. Flickers in captivity can get carotenoids from carrots and peppers. DNA of the cafer race directs enzymes to oxygenate some of those pigments in the flight feathers. It makes the cafers’ feathers more red-shafted.

Around 15,000 years ago, climate warmed; ice melted; forest expanded; treeline extended north. Ranges of Red- and Yellow-shafted flickers spread north and inland. I’m guessing that 12,000 years ago on this Fern Street hillside a Red-shafted pair hollowed out a nest in a lodgepole pine, as bison grazed. I’m guessing that the colder centuries between 11,400 and 10,900 years ago repelled flickers from the Island, but that they returned soon afterward. Flicker calls have no doubt pierced Bowker Valley stillness for the past 10,000 years. Science suggests that the expanding ranges of cafer and aurates met at least 7000 years ago. The hybrid zone may have held fairly stable for the past 4000 years.

 In BC the Northern flicker is our most common woodpecker. Wherever trees stand, they gouge out nest holes. Across North America flickers total almost ten million. And they provide nests for many millions of other birds. At Riske Creek a study found that flickers generally didn’t reuse their nest holes in subsequent years. Other species more often occupied them: European starling, Mountain bluebird, Tree swallow, American kestrel, Red squirrel, Bufflehead. Wildlife managers term Northern flicker and other woodpeckers “keystone” species. Their nest-hole-making plays a vital role in forest ecosystems. Wood ducks, small owls and hawks, wrens, swifts and swallows depend on them.

Flicker nest-making depends on decaying trees. The bird does not tunnel into living solid wood, but into punky wood. Ecologically, the most valuable tree in a forest or in this neighbourhood may be a snag, crumbling and riddled with woodpecker holes. We too quickly remove dead wood. Decay, generally we under-appreciate. I hope we are evolving culturally to see beauty in rotting trees, and in trees with dead tops. In the world I want for my grandson, Northern flickers continue to be a common wonder.

They have helped me. In the early 1980s in early autumn I visited Jericho Beach Park again, where I had watched the two Red-shafted flickers feeding on mountain ash berries. My 1970s life, its marriage and career, was no more. Proceeds from selling our house had supported me for several months. They had dwindled and I had sold my MG. That morning I was feeling lost enough perhaps to open to new direction. I appealed to the Elders. Had anyone cared to observe, they would have seen a young man stand looking at a mountain ash tree for a long time, then, within a circle of cedar trees, walk slowly round and round and round. As I walked, my appeal to the Elders settled gradually within me to an exceptionally deep level of sincerity.

Leaving the park, I bought a newspaper. On the bus home I opened the help-wanted ads. I needed a job. One ad invited me to drive school busses for children with special needs. I applied and from that year bussing children with disabilities, a complete life has welcomed me. One of the other drivers was Sherryll; one of the schools let me volunteer between shifts; one of its teachers steered me toward a vocation in education with students with multiple severe disabilities. School District #61, Greater Victoria, offered me a job here.

I would honour now the Elders. The flicker under the pine tree says: “Human mind is not for making you special; it’s for serving Earth’s becoming.”