For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadee vs. Cat

Original Air Date: Oct. 13, 2000 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Oct. 14, 2013; July 24, 2012; July 16, 2010; Jan. 27, 2010; Feb. 18, 2008; Oct. 8, 2007; July 20, 2005; June 30, 2004; Aug. 6, 2003; Oct. 18, 2002

Caring for a bird injured by a cat almost always ends with heartbreak.

Duration: 4′24″


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

A few years ago I found myself the caretaker of a chickadee that a cat had attacked. Of all the birds in the world, there is something uniquely innocent and fun about a chickadee. It has the irrepressible inquisitiveness, the energy, and the sheer joy of living of a small child, all packaged into a ball of feathers so light that you could mail four of them with a single postage stamp. Chickadees fuel their tiny inner flame with weed seeds and insects—it seems impossible to imagine anything so little and fragile outlasting a Northland winter, and the fact that they not only do survive but also can be heard singing a sweet song on blustery January mornings when the temperature is 20 below makes them downright miraculous. Ornithologists have done plenty of calculations to establish that the chickadee metabolism can readily maintain its body temperature when the thermometer dips well below zero as long as it ingests enough calories, but no calculations exist that can describe a chickadee.’s life force.

If only chickadees could fight off a cat as well as they can winter. The little guy I took care of had a badly broken wing, and some sort of damage to its nervous system which caused the feathers on one side of the head to lay flat when the feathers on the other side were erect. He was hungry—I have him some water laced with Karo syrup to give him some quick energy, and then fed him sunflower, peanuts, and a variety of other seeds and the dogfood mixture I feed baby birds, along with amoxycillin to prevent any infections from the cat’s saliva. He had trouble with his sense of balance, so I had to help him hold the seeds in his feet. I discovered that chickadees don’t peel off the shell and then swallow the sunflower seed whole—even the smallest black oil seeds are too big for their tiny beaks. My little guy hacked away at a corner of the shell until he exposed a little piece of the seed within, and then took little bites, again hacked away at more of the shell, took more little bites, and so one until he’d cleaned out the whole seed. .

Even though he was badly hurt, he had all the curiosity innate to his species. He quickly figured out the lay of the land in my office, where I kept him loose, and although he discovered several novel hiding places, such as among the cords and wires of my computer, he scurried out to me whenever I came in, seeming to know right from the start that I’d be carrying some novel food item.

The first night he found his way into a shoe box that I had cut a little round hole in. I peeked inside and saw a most amazing sight—he was sleeping soundly in a little ball, his down feathers all erect, giving him the appearance of a fuzzy golfball with a spiky tail. He was all curiosity and fun through the third day, and I was starting to think that he would make it, but that evening, he began to appear a little disoriented. He had been eating fine and acting animated and inquisitive all day, but suddenly his droppings turned black, indicating internal bleeding. He died that night. I’ve held a lot of dead birds, including some I’d been powerfully attached to, but somehow a dead chickadee is sadder than just about anything. As I held him, I discovered that on top of his obvious wounds he had several broken ribs. A chickadee can survive the harshest conditions Mother Nature can dole out, but one sweet little kitty can snuff out its life forever.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”