Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 25, 2019

Black-capped Chickadee Musings on a Frigid Day

(This transcript of a program from the 1990s seemed worth another look.)

Black-capped Chickadee

When we're in the midst of a blizzard, while snow is swirling and piling up, sometimes a person needs to hunker down for a bit with a cup of coffee or cocoa and stare at a rectangular piece of glass. A TV set or computer monitor satisfies this fundamental biological need for many people, but I prefer to stare out my dining room window. The frigid northern winter penetrates the walls, making the house a bit chilly, but the cocoa warms my tummy, and chickadees zipping in and out of the feeders warm my heart.  

Black-capped Chickadee

What is it about these creatures that so captivates even the most rational of us? Perhaps it's their tiny size: it takes three chickadees to balance a first class letter. But if size were the chickadee's main attraction, wouldn't we like mice and cockroaches even more? Chickadees seem gentle and sweet, but bird banders and birch trees can attest that that tiny chickadee beak packs a wallop.

Taking revenge

Black-capped Chickadees building nest

They seem so peaceable in their little flocks, but the sweet gurgles that they make are really aggressive warnings to one another to keep their distance. The whole reason chickadees grab a seed from a feeder and carry it off into a tree to eat it is because they so dislike being close to other chickadees.   

One authority on chickadee behavior and natural history, Millicent Ficken, told me that she got irritated by people who talk about sweet and cheerful chickadees. She maintained that optimism is in the eye of the beholder, and that chickadees struggle for survival in a harsh and bitter world with no more cheerfulness or optimism than any of us would if we were stuck outdoors in twenty below temperatures relying on our wits and bodies alone. She studied chickadees for decades, so I suppose she ought to know, but when I look at chickadees on a bitter morning, even if I'm stuck outdoors right with them, I warm right up. When I look into their bright black eyes, I see curiosity, intelligence, and I'm pretty sure I see optimism. I've never yet seen bitterness, resignation, or despair. Sure they like to keep their personal space, but isn't it the height of civilized behavior to warn others away in the gentlest of terms? Their courtship Hey, sweetie song may indeed be nothing more than a mechanical response to a hormonal surge, but what a pleasant response it is.   

Black-capped Chickadee

Walt Whitman once wrote that "You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds." I like being precise and scientific about them. I just try to remember that true understanding and knowledge come from the heart as well as the brain, and that a closed heart is just as limiting as a closed mind. No matter what the weather brings, I hope those tiny little metabolic wonders will ever continue to warm my spirits and bring sunshine to the gloomiest days.  

Black-capped Chickadee