For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Chickadees

Original Air Date: Dec. 24, 2004 Rerun Dates: Dec. 26, 2017; Dec. 23, 2015; Dec. 25, 2012; Dec. 17, 2009; Dec. 3, 2007; Dec. 22, 2006

Chickadee activity is one of the joys of December.

Duration: 5′19″


Christmas chickadees

Now that genuinely frigid weather has descended upon us, I’m spending a lot of time feeding chickadees. Two flocks spend most of their time in my backyard. Chickadees are social, but like their personal space, so they don’t roost too close to one another. When they’re not feeding, the individual birds hide out—a couple in my lilac bushes, several in various spruce trees. One chickadee spent a little time seeking shelter from the raging northwest wind at the base of my office window, hunkered down, eyes closed. But that window has suet, peanut, and niger seed feeders affixed with suction cups, and the nearness of siskins, goldfinches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and other chickadees was too stressful so he found another place.

Because they spend so much time in my yard, the moment I crank open my window, in they zoom. During milder periods, I waited for a chickadee to fly in to my box elder or one of my window feeders to stare at me—if no chickadees were right there and I cranked open the window and whistled, it could take several minutes before one appeared. But on these achingly cold days, they seem to be right here all the time.

With the fierce winds of December 23, the tiny birds had a little trouble controlling their flight. But despite the temperature, part of the day in double digits below zero, the chickadees maintained their strict social hierarchy. Each chickadee flock has a strict pecking order, not enforced by pecking but simply by chickadee conformism. When one chickadee alights on my hand and a higher-up appears, the one on my hand flits off and waits its turn, never quickly grabbing a mealworm as long as it’s right there. In the brutal weather, when I feel a bit more impatient to pull my hand back inside and close the window, I notice chickadee hesitation more than normal. Most of the chickadees fly right in and sit comfortably, rummage through the mealworms for the biggest-looking one and fly off. A couple actually mouth the first mealworm to squish it a bit, and then grab a second as well. There are a few that are more hesitant—they seem to distrust me even as they see that everyone else is getting delicious, warm morsels from my hand, and so they alight more tentatively, often retreating to the trees once or twice before finally snatching a mealworm and beating a hasty retreat. Some of these more timid birds hold high positions on the chickadee hierarchy, and when it’s one of their turns, the other chickadees sometimes end up having to wait several minutes before the tentative bird finally grabs a mealworm and runs.

Interestingly, one of the chickadees who most readily associates me with food, and is usually the one who lights on a window feeder, looks in, and taps on the window to get my attention, refuses to light on my hand. Something about the feel of human flesh touching his or her tiny toes squicks it out, and the few times this bird has alighted right on me, it’s instantly taken off in a panic. It’s not that it’s afraid of me—it will come right up to my hand as long as it can keep its feet safely on a branch, and if it perches close enough, I can move my hand right up to it, and it will deliberately rummage through the mealworms to pick the best one—it just does not like sitting on my finger or hand. I don’t care to teach it—it seems to me that the inhibitions of wild birds are valuable and worthy of our respect, so I just have to reach a little farther when that little bird appears.

There’s an old legend that says that at midnight on Christmas Eve, there’s a magical moment when we can speak to animals. Unfortunately, at midnight the chickadees will all be safely tucked in to their own little tree cavities, unavailable for conversation. Lucky for me that so many fly up and look into my eyes throughout the day. I don’t know what they’d say if they could talk—whether they’d be little angel birds reminding us on this night of nights that we’re supposed to be engaging in peace on earth and good will toward our fellow human beings, whether they’d be pleading with us to take better care of this planet that we share, or whether they’d offer a simple, friendly howdy. But whatever they’re thinking, having these delightful birds in my life infuses me with equal measures of good cheer and commitment, and a wider circle of concern as I say, God bless us, every one.