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Stories

Cutest Bird

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There are bigger birds, and there are smaller birds.  There are flashier birds, and there are rare birds that kindle passionate enthusiasm in bird-watchers whenever they are seen.  No bird, however, has likely ever appeared in more photographs and paintings than the common and quite ordinary Black-capped Chickadee.  This little black and white bird, weighing at most half-an-ounce, has graced the covers of countless magazines, and is a perennial favorite of the greeting card industry.  Chickadees are not migratory birds, and it is quite likely that a chickadee will live its entire life within a few hundred yards of where it came into this world.  Chickadees in art, however, are well-traveled.  Their images have been mailed around the world in a procession of beautiful cards and calendars.  Indeed, what would Christmas be if one did not receive at least one card with a picture of a chickadee hanging upside down on a pine cone in a tree covered with snow?

A website sponsored by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology says the chickadee is “a bird almost universally considered ‘cute’ ”.  Whether this is because of the bird’s physical appearance or its personality I am not certain.  It is impossible, I think, to separate them.  The bird has a rounded  head atop a smallish body, and its jaunty black cap and bib, white cheeks, chest, and belly are distinctive, but many birds are are as appealing, and many are more so because of their colorful plumage.  The chickadee’s flanks are covered with light beige feathers that give the bird a soft and delicate look, but overall the bird is not flashy.  A Mountain Bluebird is flashy, but a Black-capped Chickadee is not.

The bird, however, has a big personality.  It has been described by a variety of writers as an engaging enlivener of the winter woods, a cheerful little bird, a bird of merry heart, and a bird endowed with abundant measures of faith and cheerfulness.  Chickadees have been called happy birds, and birds possessed of unbounded enthusiasm.  Whether the Black-capped Chickadees who are around my bird feeders every day of the year are happy, I cannot say, but they are certainly possessed of unbounded enthusiasm.  They need to be.  They are not quite as amped up as hummingbirds, but they maintain a bodyIMG_0285 temperature of 108F, and I have read that a chickadee must consume the equivalent of two hundred and fifty sunflower seeds per day in the winter.  That’s a lot of sunflower seeds by anyone’s reckoning, and chickadees expend a great deal of energy obtaining that many seeds even if they are to be found in a feeder they visit daily.  Many birds, like the members of the finch family, eat on or under a feeder, shelling the sunflower seeds on the spot.  Chickadees fly into the feeder, grab a seed, and head to the nearest cover to hull it, and eat the kernel found therein.

Back and forth they go from dawn until dusk.  Does an individual bird make two hundred trips from trees to feeder a day?  I don’t know.  I don’t watch the feeders all day long.  In addition, I can’t tell one bird from another anyway.  Chickadees are flying in and out of the feeders continually, especially in the winter, and they all look pretty much the same to me.  Once a bird grabs a seed it disappears into the spruce trees at the back of the yard.  Since several birds are hopping about in the branches it is hard to keep track of any one bird, and so it is difficult to tell when any individual comes back to the feeder.  While all of this is going on I can look off into the willows and aspens across the creek behind the house, and see several chickadees flitting around in the branches there.  I don’t even know how many chickadees are using the feeders to begin with.  Maybe there are eight or ten, but it is likely there are twice that many, perhaps more.

Intrigued by the idea of two hundred and fifty sunflower seeds, I counted some out not long ago.  That number barely covered the bottom of a thirty-two ounce measuring cup, and scarcely moved the dial on the kitchen scale.  Given the activity around my two feeders on any winter day it seems reasonable to assume each chickadee can get close to that number of seeds if it wishes.  Some get more, some get less, I suspect.  In addition, most chickadees spend part of the day pecking around in the trees and brush looking for what ever meat products might be available.  In the warmer months close to eighty percent of their diet consists of such delectables as spiders and insects.  This percentage goes down in the winter, but if they are not hanging around the feeders they can be found poking around in the trees looking for insect eggs and larvae hidden in the bark.  An elk or deer bone left out for the dog is visited regularly by the chickadees when the dog is out of sight.  A friend recently went to pick up a frozen elk carcass that had been hanging in the woods for several weeks, and said the chickadees had been on it so often it looked like woodpeckers had been drilling holes in it.  The little birds were still working on it after it was loaded in the truck.  As is frequently the case in the wild, what is a misfortune for  one animal is an unforeseen advantage for others.

Biologists have discovered a good many interesting things about Black-capped Chickadees.  The bird has been studied almost as much as it has been photographed and painted.  It is known that chickadees hide seeds and other food items for later use.  To avoid having these items raided by other critters they are hidden in different places instead of in a single cache, and  the chickadee can remember thousands of these individual stashes.  Not bad for a bird-brain.

It is was also discovered fifteen or so years ago that the Black-capped Chickadee can build new neurons in its bird-brain, a trick that humans are unable to perform.  Chickadees are able to allow neurons containing old information such as where a certain seed is hidden to die, and replace them with new neurons which allows them to store current information.  Birds that live in harsh environments who have a greater need to recall new food caches replace more neurons than those that live in a less demanding milieu.

This is pretty heady stuff, I must say, and I could go on at length about a number of other interesting things that have been discovered about chickadee behavior, but none of that would have much to do with why the little bird has been so long admired by so many people.  The revelation concerning neuronal replacement was surely of interest to a great many, but I doubt it inspired anyone to make a painting of a chickadee.  No one was moved to put up a couple  more bird feeders.  Knowing about the chickadee’s ability to remember the whereabouts of six thousand seeds does not make the bird a more engaging enlivener of the winter woods.  Knowing that the chickadee is able to reduce its body temperature from ten to fifteen degrees in order to conserve energy on a cold winter night does not make it a merrier bird.

Why the bird should seem either cheerful or happy or merry is puzzling to begin with, but it does.  The bird is just going about its birdie business, and certainly it seems to do so with unbounded enthusiasm, but such zeal is fired by the fact that the little creature is always on the verge of starvation.  Hunger leaves the bird little time to think about being merry, or happy, or cute.  In the winter the chickadees are at the feeder at first light, and are still feeding as darkness falls.  Their devotion to survival is what gives rise to our notions of enthusiasm.

We like chickadees, quite simply, because they are entertaining.  They are fun to be around, and their apparent tameness allows us to be near them.  They are certainly one of the most common feeder birds, and often can be encouraged to take seeds from one’s hand.  A number of times when I have been photographing chickadees in the backyard I have had them land on my shoulder before making a final approach to the feeder.  As long as nothing unexpected occurs, their need for seeds will make them appear to be quite tame.  A quick movement, however, will clear the feeder instantly, and all you will see is chickadees heading for the timber.  Their tameness is in our imaginations.

Which doesn’t make them any less fun to be around.  In the twenty-five years I have lived in this house I have been away overnight a  total of perhaps one hundred days.  Almost every day   of those years has been spent  with the members of twenty-five generations of chickadees.  Within three hundred yards of the house I have seen in those years thousands of elk and deer, dozens of moose, many coyotes, some bears, foxes, antelope, and wolves.  Sandhill Cranes are around the house for five months every year, and there have been eagles and hawks beyond counting.  Living here is like living on a wildlife refuge, and without all of those creatures I would have long ago left for someplace with a more amenable climate.  All of those magnificent creatures, however, come and go.  The chickadees are always around.  They are like family.

Every morning I go to the feeders, and spread the sunflowers seeds while the birds—many species in the summer months, chickadees and a few woodpeckers in the winter—flutter about in the trees.  Before I turn to go back to the house the chickadees are on their way.  At the feeder outside the kitchen window two land on the bottom edge of the little roof, and leaning over peer into the feeder to see if the way is clear.  One hops into the feeder, but is quickly driven out when what I take to be a more dominant bird flies in without even looking.  The two exchange the chickadee equivalent of  squawks in passing.  The bird on the edge of the roof has already fled to the safety of the trees.  Meanwhile, near the feeder in the rear of the yard three birds are clinging to a clothesline while two birds are sitting on the feeder platform attached to one of the clothesline poles.  Scattered throughout the trees six feet behind the clothesline are four or five birds, one hanging upside down examining the underside of a branch.  Birds switch places in the two feeders in whatever order the dominance system allows.  Since I cannot tell one bird from another I have no idea how any of this works out.

From time to time the chickadees take a break, at least from the feeders.  Some are out in the willows and aspens, other in spruce trees, and others are scattered about in the bushes and trees that surround the house.  One or two will be on a window sill, or clinging to the trim on the top and sides.  Seeing this, one has the impression they are peering in the window to see what we might be doing, but they are not.  They are looking for the flies that are often either on the insides of the windows looking for a way out, or on the outsides wondering how to get in.  Should I ever leave an upstairs window open to air out a room without putting a screen in, it is almost certain that a chickadee will dart in after a fly.  Once in they never seem able to find the opening through which they just came.  Several times a year I have to capture a chickadee who has flown in after a fly, and release it out the window.

About the time I think the chickadees have given up on the feeders I will notice six or seven perched in the spruce trees, and shortly they will be circling in out of the feeders again.  What prompts them to do one thing or another I have never known.  Sometimes other birds are around, dozens in the summer, and a few in the winter.  The chickadees pay them little attention as far as I can tell.  In the spring and early summer when fifty or sixty birds of several species are using the feeders things get a little crowded, but the chickadees seem unperturbed.  They wait patiently in the trees, then fly to a feeder when things seems right, grab a seed, and are gone before any trouble can occur.  Squabbles happen all day long every day of the year, but this does not dissuade them.  The merry birds squabble among themselves, and with birds of other species.  Caution is necessary most of time, but the chickadees seems no less enthusiastic for all of that.  Danger is an ever present fact of life for every creature, and we all cope with it in our own way.

I doubt my chickadees are merry, or cheerful, or happy.  How would I know such things.  Are they endowed with abundant measures of faith?  No more so than any other creature on this planet, I suspect.  They go about their business with enthusiasm, it appears, and they need to.  Perhaps that it what faith is about.  I do acknowledge that they are engaging enliveners of the winter woods, or any other woods, but that, of course, is just the way I see them.  I have friends and neighbors who would not know a chickadee from a sparrow, and thus are not themselves enlivened by my feathered friends.  They could not care less.

I care, however, and wherever I go around here there are chickadees to amuse me.  That may be a good way to describe these birds.  They are amusing.  Much of life is not particularly amusing.  We go about our business from day to day, captives of habit and  routine.  Much of what we do each day we have done before and will do again.  Three times a day I fix a meal, and clean up after it.  As I fill the dishpan with hot water for the umpteenth time the doings of the chickadees outside the window amuse me.  Some people listen to the radio or watch television, and I watch these little black and white sprites.

I have a lot of company in this.  It is estimated that one third of the American public is involved in either watching or feeding wild birds.  Fifty-five million Americans are thought to have backyard feeders, spending close to four billion dollars on goodies for the birds.  Most of that food is eaten by ordinary birds like Black-capped Chickadees, and depending on where one lives the merry birds are likely to make up a large percentage of the birds frequenting a feeder.  It would be interesting to know how many photographs are taken of chickadees every year.  Most people, I suspect, are like me, and are unable to draw at all, but most of those people can operate a camera.  Few of the photos ever find their way into a magazine or calendar, and will never grace a Christmas card, but the birds are so attractive it is almost impossible to avoid wanting to capture their image from time to time.  Whether one knows much about chickadee behavior or not, and whether the birds are happy, merry, cheerful, and faithful or not, they are always pretty cute.

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