For the Birds Radio Program: Bird of the Year: Black-capped Chickadee
New Year Chickadee
I always open my shades on New Year’s Day with eager anticipation, wondering what bird I’ll see first. One year it was a Great Horned Owl sitting on the very top of my backyard spruce tree. If I wake up before sunrise, it’s usually a Red-breasted Nuthatch or a redpoll, two of the more early risers of the bird world. Sometimes it’s a Blue Jay. But most years it’s either a crow or a chickadee. Fortunately, this year it was a chickadee, the perfect choice right when our divided society needs a little bird who gets along with pretty much everyone.
Chickadees spend so much time near people, in forested and more open habitats, even readily feeding out of our hands, that they’re very easy to photograph. Unfortunately, they’re decidedly NOT easy to photograph well. I’ve shot over a thousand pictures of them, but only a handful turned out at all well. The main problem is in their eyes—the number one criteria for quality bird photos is that the eye be well-focused and bright. Unfortunately, the black feather cap of chickadees extends down to just below the eye, making it hard except under perfect conditions to even see the eye, much less capture it on film or digitally.
But I was so delighted with seeing a chickadee first this New Year’s Day that I decided to try my hardest to get one good picture of a chickadee sometime this year. I didn’t bother on January first—the wind was raging and the poor little birds were having enough trouble staying alive. But on January 2, the sun was shining, the wind had calmed down, and my yard was filled with birds. I opened the window to my upstairs home office, and the chickadees instantly crowded in the branches just out of reach. They of course expected mealworms, and on such a cold day I could hardly disappoint them, but every now and then I’d snap a quick photo. And finally I got a really good one from such close range that it works perfectly as computer wallpaper—I posted it on my website just in case any listeners want chickadee wallpaper, too.
Then on January 3, for the first time in many weeks, the chickadees didn’t come to my window when I opened it to give them their breakfast mealworms. They were making lots of noise in the back of the yard, and when I looked, there they were, all gathered around and above a Great Gray Owl. It’s impossible to know whether they were afraid of the owl—a huge, slow-moving Great Gray Owl would have a heck of a time catching a chickadee, but could make quick work of swallowing one. This particular owl looked in good shape, and was pretty much ignoring the chickadees, concentrating on a squirrel that was trapped on the tree trunk right beneath where the owl was perched—the squirrel didn’t dare go down to run to another tree because the moment he reached the ground the owl could easily drop down and grab him, and he didn’t dare go up to his roost hole in the trunk just inches from the owl’s talons, so he was frozen in place, chattering away, while the chickadees gathered above the owl, discussing the situation and maybe taking bets. Two crows were also sitting nearby, perhaps hoping that the owl would get the squirrel and then be startled away by something and leave the squirrel for them. The stalemate lasted for over 15 minutes, but then a passing crow suddenly noticed the owl, dropped down with that blood-curdling call crows make in the presence of an owl, and rather than wait in the wings, the other two crows joined in. And the owl opened his great wings and flew off, the crows hot on its tail. The squirrel scurried up the tree and into the old woodpecker hole he roosts in while the chickadees continued to chatter. I headed back into the house, and before I could even get back upstairs, the chickadees were gathered at my window waiting for their breakfast. 2005 is aptly called the winter of the owl up here, but for me, 2005 is the year of the chickadee.