22. Pipilo maculatus


February 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



21. Regulus calendula

Version 3

February 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Zonotrichia atricapilla


September 16, 2016

To avow Earth as one evolving consciousness. To welcome the human as our planet’s adolescent capacity for reflection. To follow evolution’s call beyond self into service. Is it quaint? A worldview for old Hippies with religious and scientific leanings? I choose it. And it chooses me. Lets take it into the back yard this morning and look at Golden-crowned sparrows.

As soon as I open the door onto the fire escape, a flicker’s “klee-yer” sounds-out loud. I step into the back yard and stand rooted. So much is happening. A bright yellow bird perches on the trunk of the Emma’s Delight apple in the fruit tree guild. Another in the plum. Wilson’s or Yellow warblers? I don’t know. Sparrows, plenty of them, House sparrows, but also some bigger ones, forage on the ground in the fruit tree guild, in clover, kale and thyme. Plain grey underneath, the head mainly black above the eyes, and the forehead olivey or yellowish – what is this sparrow?

A flicker lands on the back fence. The red-paint slash on his cheek declares male Red-shafted. He drops to the ground beside the dog-water/birdbath basin I keep in the park. He drinks and bathes cautiously – a couple seconds splashing then a few seconds peering around. He bathes long, with obvious enjoyment. I glimpse yellow under the tail. Bright and rich as commercially-packaged custard, it suggests Yellow-shafted flicker. So this one is a Yellow- and Red-shafted racial hybrid! I’ve been hoping to see one.

The mixed flock drifts away from the fruit tree guild, yard and park. One or a few birds at a time, the invasion is moving elsewhere. Plenty of bird voices remain. Hummingbirds tick and zoom. A raven croaks. Or at least it sounds to me more like raven than crow. Yes, a raven flaps above the apartments and across the park. What a day in the back yard! And here is a new bird on the back fence. Towhee – black head, red eye, orange sides. I thought we might not see one here – not enough dense shrubbery maybe. Does it follow along with the mixed flock today? It drops to the ground for a drink and bath, as cautiously luxurious as the flicker’s.

Fruit tree guild. Three times I have mentioned it without explanation, for which I apologize. The phrase comes from a landscape design practice known as permaculture. The term “permaculture” combines two words: permanent and agriculture. It is a way of working with Earth as though we intend to stay here. Permaculture observes natural life systems, and harmonizes our life systems into them. The world I would live toward is one big permaculture landscape. Here in the yard of the Quaker Meeting House on this Bowker Valley hillside, we have barely dipped our toe into permaculture. Our Ecology Group has planted a fruit tree guild. I take care of it, which requires little effort.

A guild combines plants that sustain one-another while producing a yield for the gardener, like a mini-ecosystem. The one in the back yard provides herbs and berries to eat, also flowers and foliage for the Meeting House on Sundays. Its future bestows big crops of apples and plums, I trust. The gardener doesn’t do much. The guild builds its own fertility without cultivation or additives from me. Dead foliage I chop and drop on the ground to enrich the soil, keep weeds out and hold water in. Mulch is a busy society. Today it fed those sparrows with the yellowish foreheads, hop-scratching the litter with both feet at once.

The plant I tend most carefully in the fruit tree guild is the Emma’s Delight apple. Only four exist. One is the original wild tree that bird droppings planted many years ago between a railroad track and a drainage ditch in Saanich. Sherryll and I sampled its apples, loved them, shook the tree and gathered about fifty kilos. We took the fruit to Harry Burton for identification. Harry’s AppleLuscious Orchards grows heritage apple varieties. He concluded that ours was a new one. The next spring we guided him to the tree to take cuttings that he could graft onto rootstock. Harry brought us three shrimpy trees in pots the next winter. “You should name the variety after your mother,” he advised Sherryll, “What’s her name?” When Sherryll said, “Emma”, Harry declared, “It’s Emma’s Delight.” Two grow now in larger pots. The other in the fruit tree guild. Any hungry caterpillar that would chew their leaves, I personally squash. Little birds are welcome to assist with caterpillar control.

The sparrows with the olivey or yellowish foreheads were Golden-crowned, Zonotrichia atricapilla. “Golden” would not have been my chosen adjective, but now I learn that breeding season turns the top of the head bright yellow. I won’t see it. They nest at high altitudes or latitudes at treeline. In the mountains behind Smithers, BC, for example, they nest at about 1,500 metres, on the ground beneath shrubby birch and krumholz. Great new word: krumholz means crooked, bent, twisted timber. Also known as knieholz, it’s the knee-high forest zone where snow and freezing wind dwarf and flatten fir, pine and spruce into dense foliage mounds. In Alaska, Golden-crowned sparrow nests along the edge between taiga and tundra, under shrubby willow and stunted conifers. Few of us find reasons to go there in everyday life, even avian researchers.

Not many scientists have studied Golden-crowned sparrow in breeding season. Among North American songbirds, the nest of Zonotrichia atricapilla was one of the last to be described – in 1899 during the Klondike Gold Rush along the infamous White Pass trail between BC and Alaska. Starving prospectors on the White Pass ate their horses, and probably sparrow eggs. Their name for Golden-crowned sparrow was Weary Willy. Its song may have matched their mood. Peterson’s field guide describes the song as “3-5 high whistled notes of plaintive minor quality coming down the scale, ‘Oh-dear-me’.” Prospectors heard it as “no-gold-here”. But I suspect that the little, brown, self-assertive energy bundle with its bright yellow stripe amused the tired, dispirited men and probably encouraged them.

More scientists have studied Zonotrichia atricapilla in fall and winter. At this time of year its entire population is relocating south, where more graduate students and birders await. Many birds will stop here all winter on southeastern Vancouver Island. Most will migrate further down the Pacific coast, some as far as Baha California. The northern edge of their winter range is here, around the Salish Sea. Climate change may be moving the range north. Few wintered here in the 1940s. By 1957, Christmas Bird Count records show 200 Golden-crowned sparrows in Victoria. From 1982 numbers began to rise sharply, exceeding 1,000 by 1993. In last year’s Christmas count (2015) Victoria topped the nation with 1,541 Golden-crowned sparrows.

That group this morning in the fruit tree guild may not remain in Victoria for the winter. Likely they pause here two or three days to feed. Tonight they may rise high above the Strait of Juan de Fuca and wing southward over the Olympic Mountains. Thousands of Zonotrichia atricapilla migrants funnel through Victoria this month. At the southernmost tip of the Island, Rocky Point Bird Observatory captures and bands hundreds every September. The Observatory functions as the Pacific coast station of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. Dozens of volunteers assist in counting, netting and tagging birds from mid-July to mid-October. Bird banding contributes much to our knowledge of songbirds. In California, for example, it explores how Golden-crowned sparrows cooperate in winter.

Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Bruce Lyon and his students have been tagging Zonotrichia atricapilla at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum for many years. In studies such as Across-year social stability shapes network structure in wintering migrant sparrows (Ecology Letters, June 2014), they show that a Golden-crowned sparrow returns to the same wintering area each year and joins the same group. They are not close relatives, just Golden-crowned friends who flock together every winter. They establish social rank within the group on the basis of head colour. Birds with the brightest yellow top and blackest sides lead the flock. And members of the flock recognize the same status relationships from year to year. The resulting, stable community cooperates, applying its collective attention to food and safety rather than to squabbles over dominance.

Studies of Golden-crowned sparrow at UC Santa Cruz help to shift my understanding of social status. My little human self takes dominance too personally. I experience my status in pride or humiliation. The sparrow flock tells me that social ranking is not really about me. Its dominance arrangement allows the flock to work together toward wellbeing for all its members. Competition is good, vital to community life, but evolution finds ways for every community to keep a lid on competition, channel it, minimize its violence, limit the resources of attention and energy it consumes. Status, this natural and useful urge, too easily becomes a compulsion for the human self. Ecology and evolutionary science reveal social ranking as a community function serving the greater purpose of collaboration. A perpetual fight for dominance misses the point of it.

The Principle of Cooperation guides permaculture: “Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and of future survival.” Permaculture’s founder, Bill Mollison states, in his book, Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual (1988):

“The present shift in emphasis is on how the parts interact, how they work together with each other, how dissonance or harmony in life systems is achieved. Life is cooperative rather than competitive, and life forms of very different qualities may interact beneficially with one another and with their physical environment.”

Permaculture design merges scientific and spiritual awareness. Bill Mollison, an Australian, honours traditional wisdom of Australian indigenous peoples. His understanding of cooperation in nature reminds me of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s words from the early 1900s:

“… co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.”

“… co-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness.”

(Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith, 1995)

Mutual benefit bonded that mixed flock this morning in the back yard. The warblers and Golden-crowned sparrows, the flicker and towhee moved through the neighbourhood loosely in concert. Most were migrants I suspect, newly arrived here. The warblers will soon head for Central or South America. Most Golden-crowned sparrows will continue south into the US, as will most Northern flicker hybrids. The Spotted towhee I don’t know much about. Is it a local bird, expanding its range for the winter? The mixed flock, strangers to one-another, of different species, in new territory, combine their attention, finding food and watching for predators.

When the spiritual teacher `Abdu’l-Bahá was portraying the universe as an evolving, unified body, the term “ecosystem” was not yet known. He expressed a truth that science also begins to expose: the interdependence, wholeness and unity of all life and being. He expressed also, I believe, an emerging spirit of a new era for humankind within our planetary being. We begin to value ourselves ecologically, as contributing functions of greater unities, as diverse parts of greater wholes, as Golden-crowned sparrows of a winter flock. A little brown bird, a modest wonder of the universe, I move within a larger consciousness and serve it.

Worldview is a choice. Michelle, the minister of the church my family attends, talks about the difference between “believing in” and “believing into” a truth. A new civilization emerges as people choose to believe into it, to live into it.

Tell me, Golden-crowned sparrow, whose garden is this?