23. Haliaeetus leucocephalus

DSC00803_2

April 22, 2017

Balm of Gilead, Mom called it. Aroma of cottonwood buds in Fern Street Park this morning took me back sixty years and north to the Nass River at Easter. The river offered the only road to Greenville, a Nisga’a village. Men from Greenville ferried us upriver. Us included Mom and other adults arriving for the consecration of a new Anglican church. People of the village had built it and carved its interior woodwork. Balm of Gilead bathed us from cottonwoods in bud along both banks. On their branches perched hundreds of Bald eagles.

In Fern Street Park this morning, one gull keened from a condo block roof. Then many gulls, urgent, loud, mobbing a Bald eagle that cruised low across the park. The eagle was probably hunting their nests on the flat roofs.

Eagles nest in Bowker Valley and take seagulls as a dietary staple. I have seen evidence. Walking the little grandson, asleep in the stroller, down a street in Oak Bay, my plan was to look at birds in the native plant habitat area along the streambank at Monteith. The distinctively silly call of a Bald eagle altered our route. Probably the call would not sound silly from a lesser creature, but this is our most majestic bird, of striking plumage, pure white head and tail in stark contrast to its dark body, our grandest raptor, its hooked beak and grabbing talons, bold yellow. The glare from its yellow and black eye freezes the blood of more timid beings, myself included. Great ornithologists have shared my assessment of the Bald eagle’s voice. Arthur Cleveland Bent termed it “ridiculously weak and insignificant.” William Brewster described it as “weak in volume and trivial in expression….a snickering laugh expressive of imbecile derision….” But when you hear it and turn your steps toward it, you see a Bald Eagle.

I saw two of them in the tall Douglas fir behind Oak Bay’s fire hall, adults at their nest, Bowker Valley’s only nesting pair. I watched from the parking lot, standing on top of the creek. The Oak Bay Fire and Police stations, their parking lot and Fireman’s Park cover decades of household garbage and construction refuse that the municipality dumped there, filling up Bowker Creek’s gully after culverting the stream in 1914. That project seems to have ended the runs of Coho, Chum and Cutthroat up the valley. I can’t find any historical account of salmon or trout since. TheDouglas fir behind the fire hall probably sprouted pre-1914, on the lip of the gulley above the creek. Now the tree’s stout upper branches support a heavy nest of tangled sticks, about two metres wide and thick. One eagle stood in the nest conversing with the other on a branch above. I wondered if they had eaglets there. White feathers of a seagull wing hung over the edge of the nest and fluttered in the wind.

Eagles in the city prey largely upon other metropolitan birds. People around Victoria report Bald eagles chasing and grabbing gulls in the air. Much recent research on urban Bald eagles comes from across the Salish Sea, from the Greater Vancouver area. Eagles nesting in cities there take seagulls, crows and pigeons as the bulk of their diet. In the bigger North American picture, the Bald eagle eats fish as perhaps 90% of its food, and prefers fish to all other meal choices. But it hunts and scavenges opportunistically. Seagulls happen to be the most abundant food here. Less than 2km offshore we have Great Chain Island and the Chain Islets, a nesting colony for thousands of Glaucous-winged gulls. Bald eagle is a chief predator at Glaucuous-winged gull colonies. Our Oak Bay Fire hall eagle nest is one of the closest to Great Chain Island, and our pair of adults likely hunts there regularly.

Bald eagles, at present, are making headlines for re-colonizing urban areas in North America. After avoiding cities, suburbs and farms for many decades, they nest now in Philadelphia, Washington (DC), Pittsburgh and Miami. New York City recorded a nesting pair in 2015, the first in 101 years. On the British Columbia coast, eagles never completely deserted our cities. But almost. Greater Vancouver in the 1960s hosted only three active eagle nests. They have increased remarkably. By the end of that century, more than 100 pairs nested in Greater Vancouver, and by now, a few hundred pairs.

In the 1960s North America’s Bald eagle population was hitting a dangerous low point. From the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 birds on the continent when European settlers first arrived, we had reduced the number by maybe 90%. In Canada, about 25,000 to 50,000 Bald eagles remained, and about 10,000 in Alaska. But the 48 states below the US border recorded less than a thousand. There, the pesticide, DDT, was claiming an alarming toll. As top predators, eagles accumulated DDT from the food chain. It caused their eggs to have thin shells that broke in the nest. After the US banned the pesticide in 1972, Bald eagles began their impressive comeback.

Yet DDT had not been the prime cause of their decline. More basically, people had made a moral cause and a sport of killing top predators. Black-and-white eagles made easy targets. By 1940, the US had recognized the possible extermination of its national symbol as a problem, and Congress passed a Bald Eagle Protection Act. Bounty hunting in Alaska ended in 1952. The DDT disaster in the 1960s further helped people change our attitude.

From my viewpoint in the summer of 1968, working on a salmon fishing seine boat on BC’s north coast, the enemy was us, the destructive disposition of my own culture. The boat stayed anchored in a cove for a day in stormy weather. The cook went ashore with his rifle, and I went along. I liked him, a bluff-but-kindly man in his 50s. Walking in ancient rainforest, we found no deer. The cook noticed a Bald eagle high in a tree and shot it. He couldn’t understand my appalled and disgusted response. We saw the eagle through different moral lenses, from different concepts of our place in or out of nature. The bird stood crippled on the forest floor and glared at me as I clubbed it. What a fierce, magnificent being!

Admittedly, we have been killing eagles on this coast for 15,000 years or more. But not as sport or moral crusade. Around the Salish Sea before European settlement, people roasted, steamed or boiled Bald eagle as food. We also prized its feathers for the eagle life-force they represented. Young men quested to gain powers from eagle spirit. Hunters sprinkled the snowy-white down of eagles to bless their hunt. Bald eagles have watched while our hunters and fishers gutted and butchered our catch, then have glided down to eat the refuse we discarded. We have understood our interdependence.

We have gathered seasonally with them at rivers to feast from spawning runs of fish –  such as at the Nass River in early spring. The eagles I saw in cottonwoods along the banks assemble there every March and April for oolichan. Masses of the little fish come in from the sea to spawn and die. For the eagles, as for the Nisga’a people, oolichan offers food abundance at the end of winter. Greenville, the village I visited that Easter, has since reclaimed its Nisga’a name, Laxgalts’ap, within a self-governing Nisga’a Nation. That church has since burned down; the people have rebuilt and St. Andrew’s stands as the largest Anglican church north of the Vancouver area.

Our spirituality on this Northwest coast evolves. History has thrown diverse cultures together. We labour to find our fit. Each has brought its truths. Each, in its own earlier context, had responded profoundly to the difficulty of human life, its danger, suffering and possibilities. Humans seek always to transcend limitations in our existence. Now we hear each other’s truths. From cultures indigenous to this place we hear that human success depends upon mutual obligations in community. We hear that our community includes every species and every habitat where we live. Species, we hear, is a cloak, a dance mask that conceals our common essence as persons. Our welfare lies in serving the survival of all types of being. Old, imported illusions of otherness from nature, we begin to transcend. We begin to listen to each species in the valley where we live.

We hear Bald eagles in urban areas now because we are changing. Our laws protect the trees eagles nest in. Their defenders in every city closely monitor nests. I search “oak bay fire hall eagles” on the internet. A post from “sassyk”, September 4, last year:

“Welcome to the Oak Bay Eagles thread for the 2016/2017 season. There are 3 nests in the Municipality of Oak Bay, known as the Fire Hall, Golf Course and Anderson Hill nests, that have been monitored by the locals for many years.” (http://archive.hancockwildlife.org/forum/viewtopic.php?showtopic=909089)

Scrolling down the page teaches me much about the Fire Hall eagles. The adults returned to their nest in October and began “nestorations”. People noticed them over the winter in a perching tree beside the bay near Bowker Creek’s mouth. An adult started sitting on eggs in mid-February. At least one hatched by late-March. An April 13 post by “elle”:

“Yesterday afternoon I finally got a picture of Mom FireHall with a very large fluffy and active eaglet in the nest with her. It looks to be about 3 weeks old. I don’t know if there are 2 eaglets or just 1 this year.”

There are two eaglets this year. Local people also contribute data to the Bald Eagle and Osprey Nest Record Registry. It maps the Douglas fir behind Oak Bay Fire hall as wildlife tree BAEA 101-604 (See http://cmnmaps.ca/wits). A data entry, March 20:

“One adult eagle on the nest, two eagle chicks could be seen.”

Bald eagle nesting in urban habitat is limited by scarcity of suitable trees. The birds require prime real estate. They prefer waterfront, but will accept a good beach view a couple blocks back from the shore. They need a mature tree, perhaps 150 years old, 35-40 metres high, 1-2 metres thick, and super-sturdy. An eagle pair builds a heavy nest, sometimes 1,800 kilos, and may maintain it for a decade. The tree must provide a wide view and allow approach from different directions for upwind landing. On this part of the coast, Douglas firs most commonly meet the criteria. But urban areas don’t easily accommodate massive trees. Fitting more humans into our landscape, we select plants of modest dimension. People might want eagles nesting here beyond this century, so we need to plant Douglas firs now and protect them.

The Fire Hall eagles stay from October to July. They disappear for August and September. Adults and juveniles likely head for northern rivers to feed from salmon spawning runs. The Fire Hall adults return from the buffet to reclaim their nest territory, while juveniles continue to roam as nomads for five years. Adults’ heavier, more powerful bodies favour chasing and capturing prey, while juveniles’ lighter bodies enable their livelihood as wide-ranging scavengers. High soaring allows them to glide hundreds of kilometers with little energy cost, and to watch where other eagles congregate.

A few hundred assemble in winter near Victoria at Goldstream River. They scavenge on carcasses of spawned-out Chum salmon. The humans here continue our spiritual evolution. In the future in Bowker Valley we will watch with eagles as Chum spawn in Fireman’s Park, in Bowker Creek, arisen from its culvert. In the meantime we will transplant a young Douglas fir to the native plant habitat area at Monteith. One of our gardeners has it growing now in a pot on her balcony.

 

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.

19. Melospiza melodia

img_0074

January 3, 2017     9 a.m.

A tenor on the Christmas playlist was singing In the Bleak Midwinter, and the yard outside the living room window did look chilly and bleak. A feeding flock of little birds was filtering through. Bushtits swarmed the suet block that hangs from the clothesline. A towhee on the lawn below it collected bits that showered down. The bushtits dispersed from the suet cage and a sparrow landed. Not one of our everyday regular sparrows at the feeder. Those are plain grey underneath, but this one had brown streaking that converged on the breast into a dark spot. A Song sparrow. I had been hoping to see one in the yard.

Midwinter is a good time to see Song sparrows around the Salish Sea in back yards. Fall migrants converge from the interior of the province and from the northern coast. Many move through, headed for Oregon or California, but many stop here at the southern end of the Island and join feeding flocks with other little brown birds.  So the Song sparrow this morning at the suet cage was likely a winter visitor.

But it might have been a local resident. Various races of Song sparrow, Melospiza melodianest in British Columbia and coastal Alaska. Ours on the southern coast, Melospiza melodia(morphna), mostly remain here year-round. Soldiers in World War II found coastal resident Song sparrows wintering even on Attu, the extreme northwestern island of the Aleutian chain in Alaska. In the journal article Winter Birds of Attu(The Condor,March 1946) George Sutton and Rowland Wilson reported on the Aleutian subspecies, M.m.(sanaka):

“We saw these interesting finches daily. Even during the wildest gales one or two of them stayed around the door of our barracks, looking for something to eat. Most of them lived along the shore, spending virtually all their time between the water’s edge and the snow – a coastal strip varying in width from a few feet at high tide to a hundred yards or so at low tide.”

On sandflats at low tide, the Attu Song sparrows joined flocks of sandpipers feeding on tiny snails. Some pairs maintained territories over winter among gasoline drums in US Army scrap heaps. Sharing the shoreline with people was normal for subspecies sanaka. In past centuries human villages thrived on Attu. Winter snow pushed people and sparrows both into the tidal zone to forage among the sandpipers.

Evolving to survive winter in the bare strip between ocean and snow probably helped our Pacific coast Song sparrows through the most recent Ice Age. Research suggests that resident populations of Melospiza melodia survived in coastal refugia where glacier halted short of the shoreline. Song sparrows likely persisted on Haida Gwaii seashore, and possibly on Vancouver Island’s Brooks Peninsula, as tidal zone specialists. When glaciers melted around 15,000 years ago, refugium birds probably colonized much of BC and the Alaska coast. Humans may have spread out from the refugia also.

I watched a Song sparrow at the shore of Portland Island near Victoria in August. Sherryll and I enjoy rowing out and camping there. At the Shell Beach campsite, families with kayaks tented around us. On dry sand beside a log on the beach a little brown bird tilled a moist-dark furrow. A double hop with both feet uncovered beach fleas and set them jumping. The bird gobbled them where they landed.

Next morning in the tent, at the edge between prayer and sleep, a canoe prow glided into my left peripheral vision just off the beach. No one paddled the wide, long canoe, carved of wood, sliding past. Old people stood in it, maybe fifteen of them. Fear was my first response. An omen! My overloaded rowboat would sink perhaps and I would join those old people. But no. Those were Elders. Shell Beach campsite, over many generations, was their seasonal home. The sand where my rowboat sat aground on the early morning low tide was their clam flats. Shell Beach retains, I choose to believe, its long human consciousness.

Drowsing again I heard a moment of voices that laughed and sang, and a tool that repeatedly knocked. Left peripheral vision glimpsed people working, maybe six or ten of them, back on the shore toward the trees, maybe an extended family, maybe putting up a shelter. A woman generated fun in the task as she worked, with joking and singing.

I left the tent to jot notes at the picnic table. Predawn, two kayakers quietly packed for an early start. Deep motor rumble crossed the water as the first ferry emerged from Fulford Harbour. A seagull and a crow had their say; a raven croaked and two glided over the campsite. Families slept in their tents: children, parents and a grandpa. Shell Beach remains a place of families and their shelters.

That woman I glimpsed drawing her family’s energy into a common task with fun – she stood also, I imagine, among the Elders in the big canoe. The human is a social animal. Elders want community to thrive, whole community, including the sleeping people and the sparrows on the sand flat.

Our local Song sparrows are less social than we. Melospiza melodia(morphna) focuses fierce attention on individual territory, lifelong, summer and winter. We have studied their habits closely for many years. The most studied of all Song sparrow populations inhabits Mandarte Island, a few kilometers from Portland Island. Passengers on the ferry from Sidney, BC to Anacortes, Washington have noted Mandarte Island as the huge white rock, bare of trees, with some colourfully-painted shacks and many old outhouses. The outhouses are in fact observation blinds for researchers. They have occupied the shacks every summer for several decades.

Mandarte Island ecosystem over millennia has included seasonal human visits. From ancient days we landed to dig camas bulbs and shellfish, and to gather seabird eggs. Maps label it also as Bare Island Reserveand it belongs to the Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations. Satellite images reveal Mandarte as a colossal sea-cucumber, stranded and petrified as white sandstone. A central groove down the length of the island (700 metres) grows thick with shrub. Zooming-in on the picture from space shows the paths researchers tread in the shrub to locate every Song sparrow nest each year. I won’t ever visit Mandarte Island physically, so I appreciate the satellite image perspective and intimacy.

And I appreciate the book Conservation and Biology of Small Populations: The Song Sparrows of Mandarte Island(2006). UBC professor Jamie Smith and other editors assembled research from five decades. Life is brutal for those birds. Habitat on the big rock imposes strict population limits – breeding territories for no more than 150 Song sparrow pairs. Excess population is controlled mainly by death of juvenile birds. First-year birds vie for status. The winners, the most dominant, have most access to food and the best chance of securing territories and mates. Winter survival is highest for birds paired in territories. Song, particularly for males, is a weapon in their battles. Singing is a life-and-death fight.

First-year males on Mandarte learn their songs largely by listening to adult territory-holders. When he leaves the nest the young male floats among nearby territories. He quietly copies adults and engages in singing contests with his age-mates. By September or October he may stake his claim and wrest his piece of the rock. He takes the fight to territory-holders around him, and perching centimeters away, bashes them with his song repertoire. Entire songs that he learned from an adult male, he may fling back at its owner. The confrontation might last two days. Beak and claw fights can result, but rarely. The young male might or might not succeed in singing-back opponents from the borders of his new territory. If he fails, he may resume his marginal existence as a floater. If he survives winter as a floater, he can try for a territory again in early spring.

Singing ability reflects the overall quality of the bird, research suggests. On Mandarte Island, males with the largest song repertoires typically win territories soonest, maintain them longest, live longest, attract females most strongly and contribute most descendents to future generations. Females also work out their dominance hierarchy, but researchers have not yet studied it as thoroughly. By October, a juvenile female who does not succeed in pairing with a territory-holding male has virtually no place on the island. Winter mortality or emigration removes them. In the yard here, the suet block may sometimes feed a juvenile female displaced from Mandarte or another nearby island.

Nasty as it appears from a human perspective, displacing first-year females provides a vital boon to populations on small islands. The young female may appear next spring on a different little island and find a mate. She brings new genes. Research shows that inbreeding is a major hazard for isolated populations. Birds with a portion of immigrant blood are better by all measures. They even sing larger repertoires. The Mandarte Song sparrows would degenerate without a constant trickle of immigrant genes into the population.

It disturbs me to read about Song sparrow dominance, survival, aggression and territory. I see those themes in my own life and I don’t like them much. Last fall, chairing with the North Jubilee Neighbourhood Association felt to me like a territorial scrap, prolonged and exhausting. I perched and sang my repertoire about Bowker Creek, habitat rehabilitation and public greenspace. The struggle wore down my resilience and hopefulness and consumed too much of my attention. My practices of exercise, meditation and listening for birds mostly lapsed.

Walks with Fuller, the one-year-old, help me pay some attention to birds. The little guy, as I pushed him on the swing in Fern Street Park, said “Ooo” and pointed up at groups of cormorants crossing purposefully overhead. He said “Ooo” and pointed at the neighbour’s bamboo thicket where Golden-crowned sparrows sang more musically than the usual roosting gang of House sparrows. But mainly he just wants me to push the swing.

Song sparrow singing is beautiful and brutal at the same time. I think of Fuller. His baby play will develop, I suppose, into normally aggressive dominance play with other little boys. Vying for high rank in dominance hierarchies and for territory – the urge is intrinsic to Fuller, to me, to the human animal, same as to Song sparrows. But the human is a social animal. Fuller will manifest also, I trust, the normal human urge to fit and to serve in community, in collective entities beyond self and immediate family. We need that capacity right now on our tiny island.

One of the great photos from space is the Pale Blue Dot, Earth from six billion kilometers away. In 1990, theVoyager Onespace probe turned its camera back toward home just as we were vanishing in the distance. We see our planet as tiny and alone as, in Carl Sagan’s words, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. If we view Mandarte Island as a small, isolated habitat, what is Earth? We observe the Mandarte Song sparrow solution to over-population and over-consumption in a small island ecosystem. How will we humans resolve ours? We now use up far more resources each year than our habitat can replenish. We degrade the planet’s ability to support us. Our population and consumption continue to increase. Like the sparrows, we face limits.

But we are not them. Their instincts prompt them only to fight for dominance and territory. Ours move us also to expand kinship, widen community and serve. We zoom-in the blue dot in space and observe an island population that is humankind, an island ecosystem that is Earth life. We extend it our concern and care.

 

 

16. Zonotrichia atricapilla

IMG_2119

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?

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.”

14. Sturnus vulgaris

serviceberries.jpg

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:

“Starlings

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.

13. Thryomanes Bewickii

dscf1622.jpg

September 8, 2016

Fern Street is Bewick’s wren territory. With bravura, as long as I have lived here, males have sung in plain view on treetops. But I haven’t noticed. Thryomanes Bewickii has foraged underbrush, calling out harsh and sharp at the neighbour’s cat. How disconcerting to learn of the bird now. It cracks a self-image I would prefer to maintain, of knowing about nature in the city. Now I consult my books. Birds of Victoria and Vicinity uses capital letters: “THIS IS THE MOST COMMON back yard wren of Victoria.” I search online. Val Schaefer says: “Here in James Bay, Victoria, BC Canada, our ‘signature bird’ may be the Bewick’s Wren.” That’s the problem with old, cherished self-image; you have to keep it in a climate-controlled room. Let fresh air in and it crumbles to dust.

Listening early in the morning on the fire escape lets in fresh air. This week a bold bird voice came from Fern Street Park, from the trees across the field. That was awkward. It meant walking down the field beneath all the apartment and condominium balconies in pajamas and robe on dewy grass in wet slippers to peer with binoculars into someone’s back yard. A little bird sang strongly at the top of a fruit tree.

It sat upright, more like a flycatcher than a warbler, I thought. It sat and sat and sang and sang, giving me time to study. Its tail appeared longer than a warbler’s; its beak also longer, and curved. Wings looked plain and dark; under-parts plain and light. I noted a possible light eye-stripe. I looked-up flycatchers in my field guide and in a local checklist. A few flycatchers are common in Victoria; I listened on my phone to recordings of their songs. None really matched with the bird at the top of the fruit tree. It sat and sat and sang and sang. It cocked up its tail like a wren. I looked-up wrens in the field guide. Bewick’s wren! The songs in Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast did not really match, but the narrator mentioned that “Bewick’s wren make a variety of perky songs and calls.”

“Variety” perhaps understates. The Birds of North America website reports that a male may sing more than twenty different songs from many high perches in its territory. He repeats each song more than twenty times before changing tune. A graduate student may follow the wren the entire morning to record all his songs. Nor are they exactly like his neighbours’. A young wren, first claiming a territory, learns to sing by imitating the males around him, but may err slightly in his copy. Next year’s young males will imitate his error. Dialects evolve, local and regional. Isolated populations develop distinctive dialects. The bird on the fruit tree probably sang in southeastern-Vancouver-Island-ese. Ocean isolates our Bewick’s wrens.

Crossings between distant islands would daunt our Thryomanes Bewickii. They don’t migrate. The Birds of British Columbia, Vol. 3 (1997) finds no evidence of Bewick’s wren migration in BC. They barely disperse. A study in Oregon showed juvenile males relocating only about one kilometer from home, staking a territory the same year, and defending it permanently. The territories covered only about two hectares (4-5 acres) of thick, shrubby vegetation. Even in sparse habitat, such as this urban neighbourhood, territories might cover only four hectares. The Oregon birds didn’t fly far. Their longest flight might cross a couple of acres, carrying bugs home to nestlings or chasing out an intruding wren. Most flights darted between patches of dense cover, less than twelve meters.

Its stay-at-home habits cause Bewick’s wren to evolve local races. Across the bird’s range from here to Mexico, science currently recognizes sixteen subspecies. Our Vancouver Island wrens belong to subspecies calophonus along with birds of western Washington and Oregon. It seems likely that Thryomanes Bewickii calophonus originally expanded here from Oregon and Washington during a time when warming climate was enlarging their habitat northward. The male that sang from the fruit tree across the park could probably claim ancient ancestry on Vancouver Island.

Its territory might include this entire city block. Aware now of Bewick’s wrens, I have noticed one singing in the front yard from the top of the holly tree and foraging low in the native plant area underbrush. The native plant thicket stacks-up not-badly as habitat. The heart of Thryomanes Bewickii country is dry scrub and chaparral of the US Southwest. Salish Sea coast provides the northwestern extreme of the species’ range. We have dry-enough summers, mild-enough winters and dense understory vegetation. We also have, in the words of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, “anthropogenic landscapes,” shaped-by-people landscapes. Bewick’s wren has little problem with human presence in its territory. The Birds of British Columbia cites a study that found almost 80% of Bewick’s nests in back yards, on farms or in gardens. Almost half of the nests were in sheds, garages and barns. Nest sites included: “pockets or sleeves of clothing left hanging in abandoned buildings, garage drawers and cupboards left slightly ajar, behind a frying pan hanging on a post…[and inside] a paper bag half filled with nails.” As long as my gardening avoids neat-and-tidiness and allows insect abundance, Bewick’s wren welcomes me to its ancestral lands.

How ancestral? Little brown stay-at-home bird, when did you cross to this island from the mainland? How? Such questions allow fresh air gusting into my self-image vault in a swirl of plaster flakes. I have been happy with my picture of this hillside, valley and creek over the past 15,000 years: Glacier departs; land soon rises from the sea; creek flows down the valley; between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago life rushes in – salmon, willow, warbler, people in boats. I would prefer to maintain my illusion of knowing what I am talking about, but these bird questions make me consult people who know vastly more than I do. I went on a walk led by Grant Keddie.

Grant has served for decades as curator of archaeology at the BC Provincial Museum. Evenings and weekends, he has explored locally for hints of our deep history. He tells of recovering a bison tooth from the trench for a sewer line on Haultain Street. If I understand it correctly, Grant Keddie’s picture of this valley’s past includes a period around 12,000 years ago, dry and cold, of grasslands and of lodgepole pines in open forest, of bison herds (gigantic Bison antiquus, now extinct). The picture does not look to me like year-round habitat for Thryomanes Bewickii. I see landscape more like present-day northern BC, east of the Rockies. Winters here 12,000 year ago look too harsh for Bewick’s wren.

On this Fern Street hillside 12,000 years ago we probably hunted the bison and other large mammals. A backhoe on Orcas Island recently uncovered bones of Bison antiquus bearing marks of our stone cleavers and choppers. Orcas Island is only forty kilometers from here. Archeologists believe that hunters butchered the animal on the ice of a frozen pond approximately 13,500 years ago. Falling sea level in that era was converting enough seabed into dry land that the big animals could cross to Vancouver Island, maybe by 12,500 years ago. Their nomadic hunters would follow them. Did the buffalo hunters encounter any people already living here? How did we humans negotiate that meeting? I wonder.

I could not absorb all the information from the walk with Grant Keddie. I took home confusing scribbled notes and the impression of several big shifts in climate, vegetation, animal and human populations. He mentioned that he hopes to work with Richard Hebda, the Provincial Museum’s curator of botany and earth history, to write our local story since the most recent ice age. I need that article now.

New local discoveries about our distant past are emerging in this century, and particularly in this decade. In Bowker Valley it helps that we sit physically between the BC Provincial Museum and the University of Victoria. Scientists of various disciplines wonder and share information about this region where they live. Master of Science candidates select local topics for their thesis research – Kristen Rhea Miskelly, for example, Vegetation and climate history of the Fraser Glaciation on southeastern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada (2012). Miskelly’s thesis proposes an ice-age refugium for plants and animals on southeastern Vancouver Island. Much land in the hills west of Victoria may have stayed both above water and free of ice throughout the Fraser Glaciation. Grant Keddie suspects increasingly that elk and other large mammals survived on the Island throughout the ice age. He hopes to prove it.

Searching for a truer picture of this hillside, valley and creek since ice departed and land rose from the sea, the most helpful article I have found is Richard Hebda’s Biodiversity: Geological History in British Columbia (2007). My impression from Hebda is that the dry, cold era of lodgepole pine open forest and grassland extended through the valley’s first 3,000 years – approximately from 14,500 to 11,500 years ago. Sudden, severe cooling ended the bison era about 11,400 years BP (Before Present). Deep winter freezing during five cold centuries broke down our grassland and pine forest ecosystems. Shrubby, stunted alder may have colonized. I wonder which large mammals remained in our valley. Which died out, moved out or moved in? Did people follow them? Certainly I don’t see Thryomanes Bewickii here during that cold period – but I see them arrive soon after.

Around 10, 900 years BP, climate turned warm and dry, with hotter summers than today. Extreme low sea levels continued to bare so much of the seabed among the Gulf and San Juan Islands that entire ecosystems could cross over to colonize Vancouver Island from the south. Habitat for Bewick’s wren expanded all around the Salish Sea. Douglas fir forest, with dense, shrubby understory spread into and beyond its present zone. Garry oak ecosystem established here also, and wildfire repeatedly cleared swaths of Garry oak meadow. Between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago approximately, this hillside and valley may have looked much like Oregon oak lands look today. The people likely hunted animals we know now on the Island, and possibly dug camas bulbs in meadow. During decades between wildfires, patches of dense brush would grow among the old oaks, and we probably heard Bewick’s wrens sing.

Climate turned slightly cooler and wetter from 8,000 to 4,500 years ago, increasingly like the present day. More Douglas fir forest moved into the valley. Redcedar forest established in damp soil along the creek. Wildfires decreased. Oak meadow zones shrank. People may have adjusted by purposely burning the underbrush to preserve meadow for camas-gathering and forest edge habitat for hunting. Sea level was rising. Shoreline gradually receded to its present position, with the creek mouth at Oak Bay. Ocean increasingly isolated Island plants and animals, including Bewick’s wren. From about 4,500 years BP, the valley and its people maintained generally the same ecosystems that enchanted fur traders landing in 107 BP (1843).

I feel better already. Acquiring this new information applies cement to the cracks in that old self-image. I hear Bewick’s wren sing this morning from the top of a spruce tree across Fern Street. What’s that you say, little bird? Your song tells me: “Forget this inward-looking self-image business. Sit up straight. Sing out. Stake life’s claim to this hillside and valley. Fight for us when you need to.”