For the Birds Radio Program: Hand feeding chickadees

Original Air Date: Dec. 26, 2003 (estimated date)

Laura FINALLY got chickadees to eat out of her hand!

Audio missing



During these first days of winter, the shortest days of the year, chickadees have very little time to find enough food to keep their metabolic furnaces burning during the longest nights of the year. As they wake up in the semi-darkness, they start shivering, which heats up their bodies enough to fly out of their tiny cavities and begin their day. They instantly head for their most reliable food source for breakfast. I have two chickadee flocks that depend on my feeders, and I’ve been spoiling them by providing mealworms in my window feeders. They seem to know me, peeking in the window at me and never flying away when I open the window. One even taps on the glass when the feeder is empty and I’m at my desk. When I look up, he’s always looking directly into my eyes as he taps, so it seems obvious that he’s trying to get my attention.

Last week during a snowstorm, there were several chickadees gathered in the branches just outside my office window when I started cranking it open to put out the mealworms, and I suddenly wondered if maybe they’d take them directly out of my hand. So I held out a handful of mealworms and waited. And sure enough, within 15 seconds the first chickadee zipped in to grab a mealworm, and within the next minute, at least 5 different chickadees had taken a mealworm out of my hand. Some were shyer than others, so after the brave ones had their fill, I put a handful of mealworms into the window feeder. Throughout the day, I opened the window every time I saw a chickadee in the tree or feeder, and they became more and more confident and trusting each time. Several sat in my hand long enough to carefully select two mealworms to fly off with, and at least one actually sat in my hand to eat several times, apparently enjoying basking in the house’s heat leaking out through the open window. A lot of them look up into my face before they grab the mealworm.

Every night I try to remember to put a handful of mealworms in the feeder in case I’m not up before the first chickadees arrive. But many mornings I’m working at my computer before sunup. Some days my first chickadees start coming in about a half hour before sunrise, and if I forgot to fill the feeder the night before, or if they finish the mealworms in short order, they look in and the one taps on the window to get my attention. When it’s still dark out, I keep my shade drawn, though I have a few plants on the windowsill, so it’s open about six inches from the bottom. If the feeder is empty, one of the chickadees often flies to the bottom of the window, a good 18” below the feeder, to look in. On Friday the chickadee who taps on the window started doing it from the bottom of the window at the very first hint of light, so I thought I must have forgotten to put out mealworms. I went and got a handful, but when I put my hand out, I saw that there were plenty in the feeder. Apparently frozen mealworms aren’t nearly as pleasant first thing in the morning as ones that are still warm, wriggling in my toasty warm hand. We humans must not be the only ones who appreciate a hot breakfast now and then.

The chickadees look so similar that I can’t really tell them apart. For all I know, there may be two or three different ones that tap on the window to get my attention. I do notice that the heavier ones are the ones who come to my hand first—perhaps their curiosity and lack of fear helps them get food in other situations, too. One took a bath in the melted snow in my gutter one morning, and I could recognize it by its wet feathers for a half hour. That one came and took a mealworm about every 4 minutes during that time, so I could tell how long it took to eat the mealworm, though that probably varies between individuals. Some cling to my fingers while others sit right in my hand. Some barely alight before they’re off—others seem comfortable setting for several seconds. Now that I have this wonderful opportunity to observe them close at hand, I wish I could color-band them so I could keep track of each one. But somehow putting them through the banding process seems like exactly the kind of behavior they trust me not to engage in. So I’ll take Walt Whitman’s advice: he said “You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things.”

That was Walt Whitman, and I’m Laura Erickson, speaking for the birds.