Up the Creek: Black-capped Chickadees
By Ken M. Blomberg
Of all the birds that frequent our feeders, it’s the Black-capped Chickadees that steal the show for me. Collectively, the colorful portrait outside our kitchen window includes more dramatic red male cardinals, rowdy blue jays and black, white and sometimes red woodpeckers. But hands down, my favorite bird is the Chickadee – a feathered friend that years ago led me to two most interesting fellows.
Bold by nature, these small, energetic birds are about 5 inches long, black capped, black bibbed and sport a pair of white cheeks. For those with time and patience, they can be persuaded to take a sunflower seed from an extended hand. It was that trait that led me to appreciate fellow number one – the grandfather of a college buddy that lived up north in the woods near Monico.
“Grandpa” had a flock of tame Chickadees working his living room window feeder and he was proud to show them off. He spoke of them with delight, as he did the flying squirrels that visited each evening – the spotlight we bought had brought them closer to his world. During the day, with nothing but time on his hands, he had patiently conditioned his birds to feed from hand. The secret to his success involved cracking the sunflower shells and exposing the edible kernel. He insisted, “Take a handful and try for yourself.”
To experience a living creature weighing 1/3 of an ounce balance weightlessly on your hand, is to appreciate the saying, “lighter than air”. The birds that dared to eat from my hand that day did so with gusto, as the prediction for cold temperatures were in the forecast. When temperatures drop to zero degrees Fahrenheit the Chickadee must consume up to 60% of its body weight in food. For a person weighing 200 pounds, that would translate into nearly 120 pounds of groceries!
Away from the birdfeeders and deep in the woods, a Chickadee’s diet consists of insects, insect eggs, spiders, spider eggs, berries and small seeds from pine cones. During the cold months of winter, they locate hidden food they’ve stored under the bark and cracks of trees and branches deep in the woods. That’s where I met fellow number two – the late, great ornithologist, Don “Fuzz” Follen of Arpin.
Back in the early 1980’s, Don literally took me by the hand and led me deeper into the wonderful world of birds and bird banding. I followed him across flowages to band osprey, up trees to band several species of owls and even across the state to find the elusive Great Gray owl. Don taught me to question the unknown and his home in the swamp was a perfect setting for exploring nature’s mysteries. From his window he pondered one day after watching a steady flow of Chickadees coming to his feeders. Finally, he remarked, “There’s no way the same birds are eating all the sunflower seeds we put out.”
So he started an aggressive banding program that would count and mark the birds, one at a time. He gave up after tagging well over a hundred birds, noting that they must come and go from long distances to his feeding station. They didn’t all belong to his backyard flock. As it turned out, Don had experienced a major fall chickadee flight – a minor invasion which established the winter territories of the birds near his home on the edge of a rather large swamp.
Our feeders along the creek aren’t an attraction for a flight of these tiny bundles of energy, but we get our share. Time and patience aren’t in the cards these days, but some day, not too far around the corner, I plan on cracking some seeds and handing out a few kernels to the willing. And all I’ll ask in return is a few cheerful “chick-a-dee-dees”.