22. Pipilo maculatus

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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

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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.

17. Junco hyemalis

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October 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Sturnus vulgaris

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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.

12. Setophaga petechia

Autumn leaves on groundLQ

August 20, 2016

Our neighbours enjoy the Lombardy poplars. They grow tall along the back yard’s north fence. But they need more water in summer than this dry hillside naturally provides. Seeking moisture they send their roots invading the vegetable beds, berries and flowers. They stand out of place and time. They belong in the valley bottom along a ditch on a farm a century ago. A few old Lombardy poplars still do stand there, in fact, beside Bowker Creek.

Nostalgia moved Sherryll to plant Lombardy poplars at the Meeting House. She remembered evening light on lofty windbreak trees across a field; she pictured a high leafy backdrop for Quaker garden parties and family back yard picnics. The poplars do provide it, but Swedish columnar aspens, we belatedly learn, might offer the same benefits, more drought tolerance and less invasive roots.

On the Lombardy poplars, a few leaves are turning colour as fall approaches. No breeze blew this morning, but one yellow leaf detached and fluttered sideways into the next tree. Apparent defiance of gravity by a leaf merited a closer look. Binoculars revealed a yellow bird foraging with a thin bill for insects. A warbler.

Wilson’s or Yellow warbler? I won’t claim certainty. The checklist from Victoria Natural History Society shows both species common in August. Poring over descriptions and illustrations in Peterson’s Field Guide inclines me to identify the bird as a female or immature Yellow warbler, Setophaga petechia.

This was the most cheerful-coloured bird I have seen at Fern Street. Probably it was fueling-up on its way south. BC coastal geography funnels many migrant birds through the southern tip of the Island. The Rocky Point Bird Observatory reports peak numbers of Yellow warbler passing through in the last two weeks of August. I’m happy to think that our trees at the Meeting House may provide insects to power songbird migrations. Visits from little beautiful birds persuade me that bugs may be the garden’s best crop, though caterpillars attacking our fruit trees often challenge that viewpoint.

Setophaga petechia migrates far. In winter, from Mexico south into Peru and Brazil, it brightens-up tropical jungle, mangrove swamp and city park. In summer Yellow warblers fan out through temperate and arctic North America. For any Canadian who knows where to look, they adorn this nation from sea to sea to sea.

Where should we look? The short response is: patches of shrubby willow. Birds of British Columbia, Volume 4 (2007) reports:

“The Yellow Warbler breeds in sunlit stands of deciduous vegetation and has a strong attraction to willow. …. In general it prefers shorter trees in dense stands, and shrubbery in riparian habitats along stream courses, on the margins of beaver ponds, [and] wet meadows….”

“Riparian” –  the transitional zone between land and water ecosystems – the term appears often in descriptions of Yellow warbler habitat. It includes the shrubby edges of marshland and the banks of pond and stream. Locally The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region directs us to the riparian zone at Blenkinsop Lake where “…thick growth of willows and dogwood along the trail conceals Yellow warblers.…”

We grow no willows, genus Salix, in this yard or park. Local native willows would not naturally thrive on the dry hillside. They would prosper more on the flats along Bowker Creek. More broadly defined however, willows do grow in this yard and park. The larger willow family, Salicaceae, includes poplar, alder, birch and aspen. Our Lombardy poplars belong to it, as do the black cottonwood and white birch. We qualify marginally as habitat for Setophaga petechia, if only as a feeding stop for migrants.

Yellow warblers have illumined Bowker Valley, I expect, longer than people have been here to delight in them. Willows would establish quickly after the most recent Ice Age, and warblers follow. Observations of receding glaciers in coastal Alaska illustrate the pattern. Retreating ice leaves bare land, and willows take root within a few years. Within decades, warbler song and colour enlivens dense willow thicket.

When favoured habitat appears, Setophaga petechia quickly colonizes. “Yellow warblers are an indicator species,” the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia states, “one guide to the changing landscape of British Columbia, and may be one of the first to expand into early successional habitats.” When logging removes coniferous forest, for example, alders spring up in the clearings and Yellow warblers move in. When we drain wetlands or clear willow from streambanks, warbler numbers decrease.

Bowker Valley offered Yellow warblers far more nesting habitat in the past than at present. Several kilometres of the creek and its tributaries meandered through marsh and ponds. The back cover of the Bowker Creek Blueprint document is a map from 1854. It shows many hectares of wetlands along the stream and its tributaries. Roughly estimated, wet areas on the 1854 map extended about six kilometers and averaged more than 100 metres wide (around 60 hectares or 150 acres). As at Blenkinsop Lake today, shrub willow and red-osier dogwood thicket would naturally occupy that corridor. Every May and June hundreds of Yellow warblers likely nested.

In 1854 the farming era here had hardly begun. Victoria’s settler population consisted mainly in fur trade employees at the Hudson’s Bay Company fort by the harbour. The map indicates that our valley’s only public road was a cart track across it (now Fort Street), connecting Fort Victoria to the HBC farm at Cadboro Bay. A side road branched off to a cluster of buildings on bottomland below this Fern Street hillside. They stood at present-day Carrick Street in the North Jubilee neighbourhood, and served Bowker Valley’s first farm.

The farm lot, labeled “Sec. 26” on the map, appears to include Fern Street and all of North Jubilee. Archival records indicate Modeste Demers as its holder. Marshy Bowker Creek meanders diagonally across it. Bishop Demers faced big challenges in 1854. The church had weighted its newly-arrived prelate of its newly-created diocese of Vancouver Island with responsibility for spiritual care of peoples of the entire BC mainland, its coastal islands and Alaska, but had supplied virtually no funding. Of his two priests, he had sent one up-Island to Nanaimo, and the other to the mainland. I would be interested to learn why he took up a land grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company and broke the soil of Bowker Valley. Did he personally wield the plough? Modeste Demers came from a family that had farmed in Quebec for two centuries. I imagine the middle-aged farmer clearing trees and brush and spading his potato patch.

The image disturbs me. Bishop Demers, did you dig your stretch of Bowker Creek straighter and deeper, drain your bit of its wetlands, cut and uproot your portion of its riparian willow thicket? Did the story of its degradation start with you? I continue your story. I break Bowker Valley soil again every year to grow potatoes; I dwell in comfort on your farm’s hillside pasture with hundreds of other people in huge buildings. Our roofs and roads prevent rain from soaking into earth; we divert stormwater churning down drains to our big storm sewer, the creek.

How may I reconcile my feelings of kinship, admiration, gratitude, disgust, anger and mortification? I dreamt of dead deer lying rotting in dewy morning meadow; maybe a hunter’s dump; it stinks; severed heads of sea lions stare as new lovers walk naked from last night’s embrace in the treetops, ashamed to awaken here. The girl touches her abdomen, aware of a new life. No going back now. The law, attraction, calls forth experience from innocence, summons new innocence out of old experience, spirals mind expanding always out through time.

Settlers: Modeste Demers, faithful servant of his church, missionary to the peoples who already lived here; James Douglas, fur trader, faithful servant of his company and empire. They were good friends, men of goodwill, decent proponents of their civilization’s ideals. Douglas had purchased the lands around Fort Victoria in 1850, including this valley, from the native families who lived in the area. Those families had chosen to live beside the fort. It offered profitable employment as well as safety from raids by more warlike peoples up-Island and up-coast. Potato patches provided starch with much less effort than did camas meadows. Fabric from the trading post provided clothing more conveniently than did wool dogs and spindles. Agrarian, industrial, global economy offered them an easier life. Who turns down that offer?

We sleep. We awaken many decades later in the city that Douglas imagined, in the valley that Demers’ shovel pierced, and walk down the hillside. Death stinks in the meadow: carcasses from fur trade slaughter, settlement and progress. Morning gifts us with new eyes and with guilt. Rest your palm on your abdomen; experience the new sense of justice that makes us feel sick here this morning. We are not who we were.

We carry a civilization to which we may give birth. The sense of justice we feel beneath our palm extends to every human, every species and ecosystem. Rest your palm on your abdomen; the civilization of one living Earth gestates. The law, attraction, calls us to bear and to serve it.

After 1854 change came fast in the valley. Farmers ditched and drained. A 1901 panoramic photo, snapped from Mt. Tolmie, shows pleasant farmland, no sign of shrubby marsh. Only in winter did the valley bottom stay soggy. A man I met remembered skating on the winter lake that covered the intersection of Shelbourne Street and Cedar Hill Crossroad. A woman who had lived upstairs from her family’s store as a child on Haultain Street told me of water inundating the shop. The residence upstairs remained dry and a rowboat ferried the little girl to higher ground for school.

Stormwater drains slowly in a low-gradient stream. Over its eight-kilometre length, Bowker Creek descends only fifty metres; slope averages about 0.6%. Crossing land at hardly any slope, a stream dawdles. It meanders and spreads into wetlands. In rainy winter it pools and stays flooded for months. Salmon and trout prosper.

Around the Salish Sea, streams like Bowker Creek were the most productive of Coho salmon. Coho juveniles live a full year in fresh water before migrating to the ocean. In winter, Bowker Valley marsh and swamp provided safe habitat in calm water. In the leafy seasons, shrub willow hid the stream, protected little salmon and trout from kingfishers and herons. Its cool water, shaded by willow, held abundant oxygen for fish to breathe. Shrubby riparian thicket also showered insects onto the stream surface for fish to eat. And it supplied insects for great numbers of nesting and migrating birds, such as Yellow warblers.

Gently sloping valleys also invite agriculture and city-building. City replaced farm in Bowker Valley during the Twentieth Century. Householders demanded dry ground all year. The creek became a stormwater-management problem for municipal engineers. They ditched it progressively deeper and straighter, then culverted most of it underground. Of Bowker Creek’s wide wetlands the last vestige persists at the University of Victoria, at the creek’s headwaters. Mature cottonwoods dominate swampy ground between the University Club and Gordon Head Road.

City engineers these days know that marsh absorbs stormwater, cleans it and prevents flooding downstream. Climate change appears to be giving us bigger winter rains. To mitigate flooding, Bowker Creek Blueprint recommends opening-up sections of the stream that now lie deep in culvert. As opportunities arise, we may engineer wetlands and meandering channel to slow and absorb high flows. On the old Demers farm in the Twenty-first Century, yellow songbirds aplenty may nest in riparian willow thicket at the city’s heart. Justice invites them.

11. Psaltriparus minimus

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August 15, 2016

Nesting season gives way to the time of foraging flocks. A new gang showed up this morning, and a different hustle-bustle stirred trees and bushes. At first, foliage concealed the animators. I recognized a chickadee song, and got a brief look at a bright yellow bird, some sort of warbler, but neither chickadee nor warbler powered the event. They only travelled along with it. The thicket vibrated with nondescript, very small birds. I noted their delicate beaks and general browny colouring, lighter below than above, but no distinctive markings. One alit on the back fence and I made note of its “really long tail”. I supposed it was a wren. Peterson’s Field Guide helped me determine they must be Bushtits, “very small, plain birds that move from bush to tree in straggling flocks….” I felt them as a robust, energetic presence.

Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus, flocks. It maintains year-round, stable membership in its group of four to forty birds. Flock is the greater intellect in which each Bushtit participates, its vital network of communication. Birds of Victoria and Vicinity describes the flock in winter:

“… 15 to 30 move haltingly through the mixed shrubs and trees, hanging upside-down or sideways as they search for insect eggs and larvae. They remain in touch with one another more by sound than by sight, their drab bodies and grey-brown heads blending with the shrubbery. Soft, lisping seeps and twitters are often heard before the birds are seen.”

Their survival depends on constant communication, mostly about food. The winter flock must consume bugs in enormous number daily. Each tiny body, smaller than a chickadee, presents much surface area relative to its internal dimensions, so it quickly radiates away energy. And its metabolism burns hot, maintaining body temperature at around 38.60C. Even on this mild August day, it must eat at least 80% of its own mass in insects, or lose weight. Its job is to keep eating. The flock’s job is to keep finding food.

Every flock member both leads and follows, offers information and listens. It’s a model of teamwork I like. R.C. Miller, a graduate student in California at Berkeley, trailed a band of Bushtits and reported to The Condor with his article, The Flock Behavior of the Coast Bushtit (July 1921). He analyzed the birds’ movements as follows:

“The flock is foraging, let us say, in the outer foliage of an oak tree…. Presently some individual finds the forage poor; no more scale insects or aphids are to be found in its immediate vicinity; it begins to look about in search of fresh fields and pastures green. Yonder is a clump of chaparral that looks promising. A few yards of open space must indeed be traversed in order to reach it, and Bush-tits have a native abhorrence of open spaces; they are natural agoraphobiacs. But hunger is a strong stimulus. The bird hesitates a moment, then darts out and with hurried, undulating flight crosses to the chaparral.

“Other individuals of the flock find food beginning to run short in the oak foliage. They too see the near-by clump of chaparral; they have seen their companion make the flight successfully; they hear his notes, perhaps indicating that he has found food; they themselves are encouraged to make the venture.

“Now the impulse spreads; in groups of two or three or five, others dart across from the oak to the chaparral, until shortly the whole flock has moved to the new location.”

Miller’s image of darting “from the oak to the chaparral”, nicely describes Bushtit country. Typical habitat, my Field Guide lists as “oak scrub, chaparral, mixed woods, pinions and junipers”, from southwestern B.C. to Guatemala. The southwest tip of Vancouver Island, with our Garry oaks, oak scrub and mixed forest, better fits the description of Psaltriparus minimus territory than any other spot in BC. Yet Bushtit is a recent immigrant here, first observed in 1937.

It has far longer occupied the mainland, the lower Fraser Valley. The first printed record of Psaltriparus minimus in BC is from 1866 in John Keast Lord’s book, The naturalist in Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Lord served in the new colony in 1858-59 as naturalist and veterinary surgeon with the British North America Boundary Commission, surveying the Canada/US border. He wrote: “I saw this tiny tit… at Sumass Prairie…, but had no opportunity to observe its habits.”

I don’t get it. Why would Sumas Prairie support Bushtits, perhaps for centuries, when Bowker Valley did not? I have lived in both. Dad worked at the Sumas border crossing for many years. Mom learned a deep sense of place for Sumas Prairie and Sumas Mountain. She admired John Keast Lord and other young British men of science who paid attention to the biological and cultural systems of our coast and left written records. Christie was a writer. But the facts remain, our Victoria climate is drier, our winters warmer, our vegetation more California-ish. What sensible Bushtit would prefer the mainland to southeast Vancouver Island?

I suspect they were simply unable to get here. Remember M.C. Miller’s comment in The Condor that “Bush-tits have a native abhorrence of open spaces….” No Bushtit is going to set out across kilometers of open water toward a dimly visible shore. Nor is the bird built to fly so far. The Birds of North America website suggests that maximum range for non-stop flight, may be about 200 metres.

Then how did it arrive in Victoria in the 1930s? My first guess was island-hopping. Many small islands dot the Salish Sea between here and the mainland. But that solution doesn’t really work. It still involves multiple flights of several kilometers across water. Also, Victoria saw Bushtits before the smaller islands did. Psaltriparus minimus range appears to have spread from this city over several decades, to nearby islands as well as north and west on Vancouver Island. If Bushtits crossed direct from the mainland to Victoria, I guess they travelled by ship. That’s what Mom did when she came to live with Sherryll, Holly and me in the ‘90s. How and why would a Bushtit flock get on a boat? I don’t know, but I welcome them.

I look forward to seeing a nest. Many must hang in bushes in Bowker Valley. The Naturalists Guide to the Victoria Region advises that the “…delicately-woven and pendulous nest may be detected in clumps of Ocean-spray.” Birds of Victoria and Vicinity tells us to watch for “…what one might mistake for an old grey sock hanging from a bushy shrub.” They are marvels.

Building one, a Bushtit pair starts out by lacing a circle of spider silk in the fork of a twig. They intertwine more silk and moss as a small pocket in the circle. Then they continue to work inside it, adding, weaving and stretching it downward.  They create a purse, vase-shaped, with narrowed neck and widened lower end. The interior they insulate with fur, feathers and downy plant materials like willow cotton. To the outer surface, they bind flecks of lichen for camouflage.

The nest, well insulated, keeps eggs warm, allowing adults maximum time for foraging. Strong and stretchy, it may accommodate a sizeable group overnight, perhaps fourteen nestlings and adults. That’s a big family. A female may lay as many as ten eggs, and the parents may have other adult helpers. This is a sociable species. Their amazing nests require large investment of time and energy. Predators destroy most of them. Adult Bushtits who have lost theirs often contribute as helpers at successful nests, co-parents.

The bushtit pattern of sociability has served the species its ancestors and its cousins for ages. Its whole family, Aegithalidae, the Long-tailed tits, behaves with remarkable similarity. Of eleven living Aegithalid species, only Psaltriparus minimus is American. Its forerunners, we believe, schmoozed and darted their way across the Bering land bridge around ten million years ago.

The Long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus, isAmerican Bushtit’s closest relative. It thrives over vast portions of Europe and Asia. Like its American cousin, Long-tailed tit feeds in stable flocks of three to thirty birds. Wikipedia’s description of its nest shows striking parallels:

“The nest of the long-tailed tit is constructed from four materials, lichen, feathers, spider egg cocoons and moss, with over 6,000 pieces used for a typical nest. [It] is a flexible sac… suspended… in the forks of tree branches. Structural stability… is provided by a mesh of moss and spider silk. The tiny leaves of the moss act as hooks, and the spider silk of egg cocoons provides the loops; thus forming a natural…Velcro. The tit lines the outside with hundreds of flakes of pale lichens – this provides camouflage. Inside, it lines the nest with more than 2,000 downy feathers to insulate…. Nests suffer a high rate of predation with only 17% success.”

As with American Bushtits, adult Long-tailed tits who lose their nests help with others.

The American Bushtit’s gregarious nature helps it also in winter cold. Birds endure the night clustered in a tight clump. The huddle raises the flock’s ratio of mass to surface area. It presents a smaller out-side, so its in-side conserves heat. Their convivial disposition shows also at winter feeders. As Birds of Victoria and Vicinity describes: “Beef suet hanging… will result in repeated visits from local families of Bushtits. They crowd onto the fat like a swarm of bees.”

Looking at the little bird with the long tail on the back fence this morning leaves me with a paradox. I saw drab insignificance without distinctive marking, contrast or colour, only brownish-grey, grading to grayish-brown on crown and forehead. But I felt vivid animation that sparkled. Bushtit has no audible song, but my heart heard one. Sherryll has a fridge magnet that quotes Rabbi Abraham Heschel: “Just to be is a Blessing, Just to Live is Holy.” The non-descript little brown bird on the back fence sang to me of his or her intrinsic worthiness, and of mine.

10. Haemorhous mexicanus

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August 1, 2016

This morning the back yard on Fern Street was quiet compared with downtown Mexico City. House finches there have evolved a higher pitched voice to communicate above the Mexican capital’s deep urban din. In Victoria the House finches can hear each other more easily, no doubt. Probably I could hear them, but wouldn’t recognize their voices. When I listened at 8:30, first I noted crows, gulls and a seaplane, then hospital ventilations fans, voices of little brown birds (LBBs) and door machinery for underground parking, but not much traffic. On a public holiday, people were probably sleeping in.

My notes from 8:30 proclaim:

“Beautiful! I have hoped for this! An LBB with a red breast and forehead landed on a kale plant. They are there for him, partly. Don told me that he lets his kale and arugula go to seed partly for the seeds & partly because the House finches like them….”

The little brown, vermillion-fronted bird perched briefly to pick at seedpods. Finding them spent, he flew off. Red Russian kale loves it here. I follow the example of Don, my fellow gardener at the Meeting House, leaving a few plants to self-seed. No need to sow, just move little plants where I want them. We have kale all year. I wish we had amaranth also. Amaranth seedheads in North American fields have suppliedHouse finch males with red pigment for ages.

House finch is a native American bird. How deeply native, science has recently revealed. My out-of-date bird books give House finch the Latin name, Carpodacus mexicanus. Recent sources place the species in a new genus, Haemorhous. The old name, Carpodacus, included House finch within the rosefinch family, widespread in Asia and Europe. DNA analysis now shows that the three American rosefinches don’t really belong in Carpodacus. They diverged from their Eurasian cousins around thirteen million years ago. House finch now shares with Purple and Cassin’s finches the American rosefinch genus, Haemorhous.

Modern science first noticed House finch in the dry lands of Mexicoand the US southwest. Hence the species name, mexicanus. It had been there a while. Fossil records place Haemorhous mexicanus in California and New Mexico half a million years ago. Its habitat spanned desert, grassland, scrub and sparse forest. The finch fed mainly on seeds of low plants on open land – amaranth, for example. Open land, but not bare. House finch typically chose habitat with enough bushes or trees to provide roosting above the ground and to supply some edible fruits, berries and flowers. It chose dry lands, but not waterless. People in the arid southwest and Mexico learned that seeing a House finch signaled water nearby. Classic habitat follows the stream along the bottom of a dry valley.

Humans first entered House finch habitat ten to fourteen thousand years ago. We have evidence almost that ancient. In sagebrush parklands at Chance Gulch in the Colorado Rockies around 9000 years ago, our family hunted and gathered. The sight of willow trees down in the gulch invited us to water. We found a good spring and camped near it. We hunted bison, deer, pronghorn, smaller animals and birds. Archaeologists have found the bones around our hearth, including Haemorhous mexicanus. If I feel uncomfortable imagining my family killing and eating House finches, I remind myself that we were stone-age folk at the time; just staying alive was a dominant concern.

“My family”, I say, “we” sat around that paleo-american hearth beside the spring in Chance Gulch. I claim for myself and for anyone who might read these words, direct biological descent from the most ancient Coloradans. The assertion is tentative but not ridiculous. Mathematicians and computer scientists at MIT and Yale examine our ancestry and suggest that all humans alive today may claim a completely identical set of ancestors as recently as five to fifteen thousand years ago.

Douglas Rohde, Steve Olson and Joseph Chang authored a letter to the journal Nature (September 2004), Modelling the recent common ancestry of all living humans. They pointed out that human lineage doesn’t just diverge; it also mixes back. Their thinking changes my picture of peopling the Americas. My old mental map of migration showed one big arrow crossing the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and curving south down the Rockies. The arrow, splitting and re-splitting would reach into all corners of the Americas. The old map would suggest a one-way, one-time event. The new map would show multiple flows that curve into loops and eddies, mingle, coalesce and generate new currents.

Genetics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Linguistics, Mathematics, all blossom in the 21stCentury and share their information. The picture now shows three distinct migration streams from Asia. One moves down the Pacific coast to South America, another down the Rockies and the third across the Arctic to Greenland. The currents meet and swirl together. Migration also curls back from South America into North America, and back from Alaska into Asia.

The Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands portion of the mental map, I zoom up larger. Many little arrows cross between Asia and America over recent millennia, as many little boats carry people back and forth. The Bering Sea appears not as a barrier to migration between Eurasia and America, but as a link. Whatever portion of the map I enlarge, I see people meeting from every direction. Humans perennially relocate. We invade, raid and trade. We follow our food source or our star. Things go wrong for us at home and we end up in a different place among different people. New blood finds its way across every social taboo and geographical feature to the most isolated caste and island. Humans demonstrate a powerful natural proclivity for mixing our ancestry. “There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep”, as the song says, bloodlines apart, in the Stone Age or now. It’s good. It keeps our gene pools rich, and our species adaptable.

It also keeps everybody more closely related than we previously thought. Viewed from space, your family tree looks more like a global network. We all may be biological children of the first humans who camped at the mouth of Bowker Creek just down the valley from this Fern Street hillside. We all may descend directly from the family that snacked on Haemorhous mexicanus around the hearth in Chance Gulch 9000 years ago

About 7000 years ago, our relationship with that bird deepened. We invented farming in Mexico. We domesticated amaranth and surrounded ourselves with it as our cereal staple. We built dams in dry valleys for irrigation, raised windbreaks and houses. Our efforts provided food, water and off-the-ground roosting and nesting for the little brown bird with the red front. Human-altered landscape invited it to settle into its new “House finch” era.

Haemorous mexicanus likely adapted as a Mexico City bird in Aztec Empire times. Known 800 years ago as Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital housed 200,000 people, grew huge crops of amaranth and imported 180,000 bushels of it annually as imperial tribute.

In recent centuries our human houses, towns and cities have greatly multiplied. So has Haemorhous mexicanus. In Denver, Dr. W. H. Bertgold wrote A Study of the House Finch for the journal, The Auk, in 1913. He noted that:

“The characteristic native bird of the cities and towns of Colorado is the House Finch…. Previous to the advent of the English Sparrow in Denver…the only bird at all common about the buildings… was this finch….In 1881 when the writer first visited Colorado….the House Finch had already taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by… barns and other buildings, to construct nests thereon….”

North America’s changing landscape of farm, city and suburb attracted Haemorhous mexicanus to expand its range in all directions. Along arid valleys northward into Oregon and Washington, we irrigated, planted and built towns. The bird followed. By 1935, Ian McTaggart-Cowan noticed House finches in the Okanagan, a dry valley in British Columbia’s southern interior. He noticed them also here in Victoria.

Briony Penn comments in her McTaggart-Cowan biography, The Real Thing, that he had just returned to BC in 1935 from the University of California, Berkeley, where the House finch was common and familiar to him. She quotes him: “…the House finch song was still echoing in my mind. I was walking to work past the Crystal Pool [in downtown Victoria] and there it was. Its nest was within my reach and they raised three broods that summer.” Only in Victoria, nowhere else in coastal BC or Washington did we see Haemorhous mexicanus in the 1930s.

Coastal rainforest was not its habitat. Damp was not its climate. Ours was – Victoria, driest city on the BC or Washington coast. A few House finches had jumped, it appears, from Penticton in the dry Okanagan Valley, 150 kilometres across the Coast Range, coastal plain and Salish Sea to roost in the ivy on the Empress Hotel. Scientists report that House finches have commonly made such hops, known as “jump dispersals”, as the species has expanded its range.  From an established population, a few birds relocate thirty to 180 kilometers distant and breed successfully. That new population then builds up locally and diffuses regionally.

Victoria’s House finch population gradually diffused up Vancouver Island’s east coast. It also jumped back across water to the mainland.  We noticed them in Vancouver around 1950, in Seattle by the mid-‘50s, and all around the Salish Sea over the ‘60s and ‘70s. House finch has acclimatized now to damp Pacific Northwest conditions. It thrives, in fact, in diverse climes across North America.

Introduced in New York in the 1940s, for example, the bird rapidly evolved a more-compact shape for surviving cold, snowy winters: shorter legs, feet, wings and tail. It grew a bigger bill that could crack the sunflower seeds in New York feeders. Atlantic-coast-hardy, Haemorhous mexicanus extended its range rapidly south, west, and also north into Canada. It spread into Ontario during the 1970s and ‘80s, Quebec and the Atlantic and prairie provinces in the ‘90s.

Numbering anywhere between 267 million and 1.7 billion, House finch shows up as a strikingly adaptable species – like humans. Back home in Mexico City, for example, the bird has acclimatized to extreme urban conditions. Scientists have shown city finches to focus calmly on food-finding tasks amid levels of human hustle-bustle that totally fluster a country cousin. Mexico City birds have also adopted a new chemical pesticide for controlling ticks that infest nestlings: parent birds line their nests with used cigarette filters.

Like humans also, House finches are disposed to leave home and find mates in some other community. Only twenty percent remain local and breed in their natal population. Juveniles move away in all directions, commonly less than twenty kilometres, but some disperse as far as 1200 km. Adult birds likewise tend to spread out and relocate after breeding season. Like us, House finch is disposed to mixing and remixing its ancestry, continually refreshing its gene pools.

Next year, I promise the House finches: I will sow amaranth. West Coast Seeds sells packets of Burgundy Grain variety and Hopi Red Dye. I hope, next August, to watch a little brown bird with red-ochre forehead, breast and chin munching from an amaranth seedhead atop its tall stalk. Self-seeding, amaranth might settle-in here like the kale. The Meeting House garden might join in an ancient North American relationship.