For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadees

Original Air Date: Feb. 8, 1995

Today’s For the Birds is about chickadee physiology and how one little chickadee spent over an hour feeding on one large peanut. 4:04

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Now that winter is half over and days are appreciably lengthening, the average daily temperature is at long last increasing once again, and hope is astir in the land. This winter has been unusually mild, making skating and skiing more difficult than usual. The pleasant weather has also held down the numbers of feeder birds, especially in cities, since there’s plenty of wild food available. But there’s one bird that everyone can count on, no matter what the weather has been like, no matter where you live–the Black-capped Chickadee.

Chickadees can be found in just about every habitat, in just about every city neighborhood, and at just about every bird feeder, though unless there are a lot of chickadees in your neck of the woods, you can’t count on seeing then every time you look out at your bird feeders. Chickadee flocks don’t stick to one place for long–they’re ever on the move, and even have a special “see-see-see” call just to warn any stragglers that the flock is moving on. Chickadees are little bundles of energy, and movement is part of what they’re all about.

Chickadee psychology is interesting. They don’t like to be too close to one another, needing plenty of personal space to feel comfortable. That’s why they don’t sit in feeders and pig out the way northern finches do–they take a seed and fly, keeping well apart, even in separate trees, while eating. At nighttime, even through the most frozen nights of the year, they sleep alone, each in his or her own little tree cavity. But if chickadees like to keep their distance, they still like company. At first light each morning, as they awake one by one, they quickly join up with their flock, and they move about their winter territory in groups, never singly.

But a few years ago, one little chickadee I was watching in my yard found something worth sticking around for, even though he or she was left all alone for hours before the flock returned. I set out peanuts for the neighborhood Blue Jays and squirrels, and this little chickadee took it in her head to check one out as a novelty. She didn’t pick any old peanut, either. She grabbed one with three seeds in it. The peanut probably weighed as much as she did, but she optimistically carried it off anyway, steadily losing altitude and barely making it from the feeder to the bottommost branch of a nearby lilac bush. She held the enormous peanut in her feet and started hacking away at the shell.

Chickadees don’t actually remove the shell from a seed–even a tiny sunflower heart is too big for a chickadee to swallow whole. They poke a hole in the shell of whatever seed they’re eating, and then probe in with their beak to pull out tiny bite-sized pieces of the meat within. This one apparently liked the taste of peanut–she hardly looked up as her flock moved on a few minutes later. She kept hacking away at that peanut throughout the morning, occasionally preening her wing feathers but never letting go of that peanut clutched in her little feet.

The flock came back once at midmorning, but they arrived and left while she sat tight. Another hour later the flock returned, and this time when they moved on, she finally dropped the peanut and joined them. I went to the lilac bush and found what was left of the peanut–half of the shell had been shredded into microscopic pieces, and the other half was still intact. But the entire contents were gone. That chickadee never took another whole peanut–on this memorable morning she had apparently both literally and figuratively had her fill.