For the Birds Radio Program: Millennial Birds

Original Air Date: Jan. 3, 2000

Laura wanted a chickadee to be the first bird she saw in the new millennium. How did she ensure that she’d succeed?

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Every January first, I try to see as many birds as I can. A fresh New Year gives renewed energy to everyday things, and I always try to channel my energy into birds. Last year I set the goal of seeing the 600th bird on my life list before the turn of the century, but I fulfilled that goal during spring break, so the rest of the year was anticlimactic. This year, as we rolled over from the 19s to the 20s, my annual tradition of the year list seemed to have a new dimension. The goal I set for myself was much more modest than last year’s—this year all I wanted was to make the very first bird I saw in the new year, decade, century, and millennium a chickadee.

The Blue Jay is probably my favorite bird, but it’s not the bird I wanted to see first in 2000. The Black-capped Chickadee was the first bird I identified during the last millennium—on March 2, 1975, in Baker Woodlot on the Michigan State University campus, and it was a magical start to twenty-five years of birding. What better bird to start off this next chapter in my life with birds?

The problem was, even if chickadees are the most abundant birds at my feeders this year, there was no guarantee that one of the other birds might not pop into view before a chickadee. And looking out at the wrong moment would have ruined everything, so I planned out a strategy. The day before, I told everyone in my family that they had to watch out for chickadees in the morning and tell me when the flock came in. I would avert my gaze from the windows all day until someone could assure me that the first bird I’d see out the window was a chickadee. No way would I risk going outside until I’d seen a chickadee, because I knew the first bird I’d hear outside would be a crow.

But January first has a pesky habit of following hot on the trail of New Year’s Eve, and my kids had all stayed up very late with their friends welcoming in the New Year—now they were all sleeping in. Russ tried to watch for me, but he’s not a birder and got easily distracted. Finally I figured out a better strategy. I went upstairs to my writing room, where I have a couple of acrylic feeders stuck to the windows with suction cups. The only birds that visit these are chickadees. I sat at a window, concentrating on reading the newspaper until I heard the thud of a chickadee alighting on the feeder. Although chickadees weigh only a third of an ounce, they hit with a surprising amount of force when landing. I looked out to see the first chickadee flying away, and instantly a Hairy Woodpecker flew into the tree right near me, so I really was lucky I detected the chickadee first.

During the course of New Year’s Day I saw a total of ten species—a pitiful total by some standards, but not bad for lolling around the house and not mustering the energy to go to the Sax-Zim Bog until late in the afternoon. I don’t know that I have any real birding goals this year as far as lifers go—maybe this will be the year I try to see a chickadee and a Blue Jay in every single county of Minnesota and Wisconsin. That would take me to a lot of new places. Otherwise, I think I’m just going to let the year unfold as it will. But I’m sure pleased that I fulfilled my one little goal of seeing a chickadee first.