Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Chickadee Day!

Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee
Every year since 1975, I’ve celebrated March 2 as “Chickadee Day,” marking the anniversary of my seeing the first bird on my life list. My backyard chickadees always help me celebrate, and the celebration is even sweeter in years when I’m well supplied with mealworms, because one by one, my chickadees alight on my hand for them, and I get to appreciate all over again just how genuinely unique each individual chickadee is.

Chickadees appeal to me on many, many levels. I love them as I love all wild birds, as members of a unique species with wonderful physical and behavioral adaptations, and as individuals to be reckoned with. But I also love chickadees as role models of how humans, as individuals and as societies, could be. Chickadees are the epitome of self-reliance. Each chickadee finds a good unoccupied roost cavity or excavates one entirely on its own, using that tiny but sturdy chickadee beak.

Black-capped Chickadee nest
Chickadee in its own excavated cavity
Even when temperatures plummet well below zero, each chickadee sleeps alone, except during the few weeks each year when adult females brood their young. Chickadees associate in flocks, each working hard to stock up on food resources. But no matter how hard chickadees work to build up their individual food stores, each allows other chickadees to raid its pantry when they need. Chickadees understand that individual initiative and hard work are essential, but also that luck plays a role for everyone. One extremely hard worker may fill every crevice of a birch tree with food that serves it and its flock for many seasons or years, and then out of the blue an ice storm takes down the tree. Chickadees don’t play the blame game or dismiss those facing misfortunes—you can count on each chickadee to both work its hardest and share its bounty.

As with most human societies, chickadee flocks are hierarchical in structure. The top ranking males and females are more assertive than lower ranking birds, and apparently have physical characteristics that help them assert their dominance. One researcher recognizes higher-ranking birds under UV lights because their feathers reflect more UV light than lower ranking birds. This may be a signal of which birds are better at furnishing themselves with good roost holes, better protecting their feathers from weathering, or may indicate which birds are most effective at procuring healthy diets, or in some other way indicate fitness. In fall, young birds joining a chickadee flock often raise their body feathers and hold their wings open, as if trying to appear larger, while working out their rankings.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms
My chickadee peeking in to get my attention
  However chickadees establish their flock’s dominance hierarchy, seldom does an individual chickadee not respect it. One of my backyard chickadees alights on my window frame and peeks in, tapping on the window or hovering a few moments to catch my attention. That bird may be smarter or more resourceful than others, but when I open the window and hold out my hand, it waits while three or four higher-ranking birds get the first mealworms. Maybe in a year or two, that chickadee will rise to the top of the flock hierarchy, but it sees no reason to disturb the social order for a quicker meal even if its clever actions are what enable the entire flock to procure such nutritious fare. Every chickadee brings its own skills and gifts to the table, and all are valued. The dominance hierarchy assures a social order that benefits one and all equally. Which, really, should be the point behind human societies, too.

Chickadee being rehabbed at the Raptor Education Group, Inc.
This year my chickadee celebration was made even better by the fact that Marge Gibson’s wildlife rehabilitation center, The Raptor Education Group, Inc. of Antigo, Wisconsin, set free a rehabbed chickadee that day. Someone had found the tiny mite struggling in the snow and brought it to them with a broken wing. Under Marge’s expert care in this state-of-the-art facility, the chickadee was restored to its proper life in the wild. My Chickadee Day celebrations are, in the overall scheme of the universe, pretty meaningless. Giving a chickadee with a broken wing a chance at survival—now that is something truly worth celebrating.

Chickadee being released to the wild after being rehabbed at the Raptor Education Group, Inc.