For the Birds Radio Program: Hurt Chickadee

Original Air Date: Nov. 15, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about a hurt chickadee that came to visit.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Two weeks ago I found myself the caretaker of a chickadee that a cat had attacked. Of all the birds in the world, there is something uniquely innocent and fun about a chickadee. It has the irrepressible inquisitiveness, the energy, and the sheer joy of living of a small child, all packaged into a ball of feathers so tiny that you could mail four of them with a single postage stamp. Chickadees fuel their tiny inner flame with weed seeds and insects—it seems impossible to imagine anything so tiny and fragile outlasting a Northland winter, and the fact that they not only do survive but also can be heard singing a sweet song on blustery January mornings when the temperature is 20 below makes them downright miraculous. Ornithologists have done plenty of calculations to establish that the chickadee metabolism can readily maintain its body temperature at subzero temperatures as long as it ingests enough calories, but there are no calculations that can quite capture a chickadee.

If only chickadees could outmaneuver a cat as well as they can the cold. The little guy I took care of had a badly broken wing, and some sort of damage to its nervous system which caused the feathers on one side of the head to lay flat when the feathers on the other side were erect. He was hungry—I have him some water laced with Karo syrup to give him some quick energy, and then fed him sunflower and mixed cockatiel seeds and the dogfood mixture I feed baby birds, along with amoxycillin to prevent any infections from the cat’s saliva. He had trouble with his sense of balance, so I had to help him hold the seeds in his feet. I discovered that chickadees don’t peel off the shell and then swallow the sunflower seed whole—even the smallest black oil seeds are too big for their tiny beaks. My little guy hacked away at a corner of the shell until he exposed a little piece of the seed within, and then took little bites until he had to hack away at more of the shell again.

Even though he was badly hurt, he had all the curiosity innate to his species. He quickly figured out the lay of my office, where I kept him loose, and although he discovered several novel hiding places, such as among the cords and wires of my computer, he hurried out whenever I arrived, seeming to know instinctively that I came bearing some novel food item.

The first night he found his way into a shoe box that I had cut a little round hole in. I peeked inside and saw a most amazing sight—he was sleeping soundly in a little ball, his down feathers all erect, giving him the appearance of a fuzzy golfball with a spiky tail. He was still all curiosity and fun the third day, and I was starting to think that he would make it, but by evening, he began to appear a little disoriented. He was eating fine and checking out the sights all day, but suddenly his droppings turned black, indicating internal bleeding. He died that night. I’ve held a lot of dead birds, including some I’d been powerfully attached to, but somehow a dead chickadee is sadder than just about anything. As I held him, I discovered that he had some broken ribs. A chickadee can survive the worst Mother Nature can dole out, but one sweet little kitty can snuff out its life nor for food, but just for a lark.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”