For the Birds Radio Program: New Year's Chickadees

Original Air Date: Jan. 2, 2002

Laura’s first sighting of 2002 was a chickadee!

Audio missing


Every January first, I wake up with a sense of excitement and anticipation, wondering what my first bird of the year will he. Usually it’s a common species–too often a crow or starling , but sometimes a chickadee–the right species to start off a year with hope and fun.

I think my favorite first sighting of any year was 1985, when I peeked out the kitchen window to behold a Great Homed Ow! perched at the tip of my big spruce tree. Some years I get out and work on my year list that first day, trying to see as many birds as possible. Other years I’m just too busy to go birding. But no matter what, I always make sure to see at least one chickadee every January first. More than any other bird, for me chickadees represent cheerfulness in the face of adversity. They’re affable and cooperative flock members even as their sense of self­ reliance forces each one to construct its own roosting cavity in which it will sleep alone.

Chickadees glow with the kind of integrity that comes from going through life with open eyes and a clean heart, with trust and honesty and the kind of strength that sustains them in the face of falcons , 60 below zero temperatures, and raging blizzards and hails storms. Cherokee Indians refer to chickadees as birds of truth. If this is true, we live in a benevolent universe indeed, because the truth chickadees express is filled with hope and good cheer, even in the face of danger and hardship.

In the same way that I like to start a new year with a clean slate, chickadees start their winter with one. They literally clean their brains out, allowing the neurons that carry worthless memories to die so that their limited brain space can focus on more important matters. Why continue mourning all the great places you hid seeds in a lovely birch tree months after the tree was blasted by lightning? There are always new trees, and new hiding places.

I wrote an article about chickadees for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune several weeks ago, suggesting that once loons fly the coop for the season, we should designate the chickadee Minnesota’s emergency auxiliary back-up state bird. The morning the article came out, I received several e-mails from readers who agreed and wanted to start a chickadee campaign. At a time when I’ m writing a response to the USDA’ s proposal to poison 6 million red-winged blackbirds, and am trying to figure out a way to prevent lawn care companies from spreading insecticides on lawns with absolutely no insect damage, it’s nice to think about a lighter issue to get involved with , too.

So I’m drafting a petition asking the legislature to designate the chickadee Minnesota’s Emergency Auxiliary Back-up State Bird from November 15 until April 15 every year, when loons are not around to fulfill their responsibilities.

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 he 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.”

At a time when serious issues about security, healthcare, education, the economy, and the environment loom, and apathy and cynicism prevail, maybe thinking about chickadees will give us all a more hopeful perspective.