For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadees

Original Air Date: Sept. 2, 2003

Laura isn’t making progress in getting the Black-capped Chickadee named Minnesota’s Emergency Auxiliary Backup State Bird, but they do deserve the designation.

Audio missing


In early September, when so many of the lovely birds of summer are heading out and transients like White-crowned Sparrows and shorebirds are passing through, thoughts of the winter ahead sometimes weigh on us. Fortunately, even though the one rule of nature is change, there’s one constant—a bird that sticks with us through thick and thin, who welcomes into its flock all the little birds passing through even as it remains here year round, year after year. The Black-capped Chickadee is certainly cute and friendly, but perhaps even more important is that its constant nature. Whether the temperature is 90 above or 60 below, whatever the month, whatever the weather, chickadees are about, among the first birds to greet us when the sun comes up, and among the last to leave as the sun goes down.

If the appeal of chickadees has much to do with their year-round faithfulness, it also has to do with their personalities. Chickadees are inquisitive and intelligent, their bright eyes taking in every detail of their world. They’re invariably among the first birds to discover a new bird feeder, and should a little owl suddenly appear on the scene, it will usually be chickadees piping tiny obscenities at the intruder that will alert the robins and jays. Chickadees are sociable when it comes to other little songbirds and woodpeckers, but they have just enough standoffishness to fit in with the Scandinavian sensibilities of north country. These tiniest of Norwegian Bachelor Farmers love to hang out together—ya sure, you betcha—but find it unseemly to get too close. At out feeders they grab a seed and flit off to a secluded twig to feed alone.

Now that my computer desk is at a window with a suction cup feeder filled with mealworms for my chickadees, I can watch them all day. Each chickadee flock has a strict pecking order, and chickadees lower on the totem pole must wait for the higher ones to take a morsel before they get a turn. Sometimes right when one finally gets to the feeder, one of the first to eat is ready for another mealworm and flies in making its little gargle call, which sounds sweet to our ears but makes the meeker chickadee flee, empty-beaked.

If chickadees follow strict social rules themselves, they don’t demand that birds of other species adopt their lifestyle. A flock of Red-breasted Nuthatches associates with my chickadees, and they live by completely different rules. Nuthatches are far less standoffish, with no respect for the gargle call, so even though they’re tinier than chickadees, they don’t retreat at the top chickadee’s warning. Chickadees aren’t afraid of them, but feel uncomfortable eating in front of others or watching others eat, so when a nuthatch flies in, the chickadees retreat until it clears the feeder.

So chickadees not only appeal to us for their endearing cuteness and curiosity, and their constancy, but also because they teach us how to get along with others. Two years ago I started a petition drive to get the chickadee named Minnesota’s Emergency Auxiliary Backup State Bird, and though I don’t really have enough signatures nor any political backing to make this happen anytime soon, it would be lovely to officially recognize this bird that brings Minnesotans so much joy and pleasure, especially during the months when our beloved loon has left the state. Chickadees, of course, are just as oblivious to our traditions and rules as nuthatches are to theirs, so chickadees won’t care at all whether we honor them or not. They’re constant and interested in us regardless of whether we even notice them or not. As days grow shorter and autumn bleaker, chickadees will be there for us, our anchor in a world of change.