For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadees
People in the Sunbelt harbor deathly images of winter in the Northland—a nightmare world of black and white starkness, the somber green of spruce and pine shrouded in white, the harsh sparkle of snow blinding in its intensity, the black night endless and lonely, silent but for the creaks and moans of brittle trees. No floral scents rise on a soft breeze. Only the pungent smell of wood smoke hangs in frozen stillness. Fingers stiffen and burn with cold. All motion succumbs with the thickening mercury: flowing water solidifies, plants are withered or buried, animals retreat south or burrow beneath the snow in deathly sleep. Human movement is awkward and sluggish under layers of clothing that constrict and smother. To Southerners, the only pleasure in a Northland winter is coming indoors, and then they gripe about the cost of fuel.
Southerners of course are right—our winter is hard. But it’s hard in the way that a raw diamond is hard. It takes a trained eye to see into the brilliant beauty within. The twinkling black eyes of a chickadee have this skill. They see loveliness in a blizzard, humor in an ice storm, radiance in dismal overcast skies. These fairy sprites survive the harshest days not by dreaming of springtime ahead, but by rejoicing in the present. Is the temperature forty below? A chickadee celebrates its amazing luck at being equipped with built-in down underwear. Is the wind howling or an ice storm raging? A chickadee gurgles with joy to find the right spruce branch for shelter. After weeks without fresh water, is a chickadee’s throat dry? A trickle of melted snow on a rooftop is splashed about and drunk like champagne in a World Series victory locker room.
A chickadee finds good fortune in the very act of looking, knowing that a cheerful eye sees more clearly than one clouded with despair. A few frozen insect larvae wedged in the crevices of tree bark constitute a Thanksgiving feast. Sunflower seed tables and suet bags provide dining fit for a king. So what if suet is 100 percent saturated animal fat? Why should a chickadee worry when its fragile heart, pumping 522 times a minute while sound asleep, 1000 times a minute while flitting around, is going to give out years before cholesterol has a chance to clog its threadlike blood vessels.
Most chickadees die before their first birthday, and the oldest one on record lived for only 12 years. Yet that is no cause for sorrow. A chickadee lives so intensely that even the shortest life is a victory. Every minute it sucks in more than 65 breaths of fresh air, and blinks over 40 times. A chickadee weighs a mere 10 grams—you could mail three of them with one postage stamp. But the energy and good will within its tiny frame would dwarf Santa Claus.
No one who watches chickadees, from urban sophisticates to crusty hermits, escapes their charm. Aldo Leopold wrote:
That whimsical fellow called evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.