|MY chickadee—the one with the deformed bill and foot—at his nest!|
At the end of my conservation big year in 2013, I started noticing a chickadee in my yard whose bill had become overgrown—the kind of deformity that has been woefully common in Alaska, so the USGS’s Alaska Science Center has been keeping track of all chickadees with deformed bills. Their data comes mostly from Alaska, but a handful of records are from elsewhere.
|This same chickadee in April 2014|
|Same guy in April 2014|
Of course, even in the middle of a book project I can’t stay at my office desk every moment of daylight hours, so when I wasn’t going to be there, I’d put some mealworms into a little window feeder. At first, the mealworms had to be piled up more than 2 or 3 millimeters thick for him to easily grasp them—his lower bill had to be able to reach them in order to take one—but little by little, I noticed that he was learning to turn his head upside down and slide the upper bill under a mealworm until the lower bill could close on it. He must have had at least a little trouble preening with the deformity, but didn’t look very scruffy except one side of his face.
|He had to turn his head upside down to eat the mealworms, too.|
Meanwhile, I suddenly was noticing that one chickadee who came regularly to my hand had a badly deformed foot, missing the front three toes. When I put two and two together, I realized that this was the very chickadee whose bill had been deformed. Sure enough, when I went back and studied those photos I’d taken, in every one showing the right foot of the bird with the overly long upper bill, I could see that pitifully deformed foot. Now that I knew about the foot, that chickadee felt way different in my hand—I must have been so keyed in on studying the bill that I simply hadn’t noticed.
|This shows his deformed foot well.|
As it turns out, he didn’t train just one human—by this past winter, he started getting mealworms from my neighbor Jeanne Tonkin, too. All along, I noticed that when he flew off with his bounty, he headed over toward the trees behind her house. When she told me she was feeding mealworms, I told her about my guy, and sure enough—he had turned two different people into his personal servants.
He didn’t attract a mate in 2014, and I couldn’t be certain he was a he or a she. This past winter, the upper bill grew just slightly longer—the bill is still slightly unusual, but I have to study it to notice. And this year he did attract a mate. Jeanne noticed before I did that he was feeding a begging chickadee the mealworms he was carrying off. I soon saw him doing that, and also singing. These two behaviors verified that he was a male, and the bird he was feeding had accepted him as a mate. They had to be nesting somewhere, but where?
Jeanne discovered the nest in her backyard a few weeks ago.
|The nest cavity|
|Here's Dad after a feeding bout|
|Mom with a juicy caterpillar|
|Mom carrying out a fecal sac|
|Mom with a spider and other delicacies|