For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in the News: Chickadee Individuality

Original Air Date: March 8, 2005 Rerun Dates: March 24, 2011; Nov. 2, 2010; Nov. 6, 2009; Aug. 18, 2009; Aug. 1, 2007; Aug. 9, 2006; Nov. 4, 2005; Aug. 30, 2005

Researchers are starting to prove something that was rather obvious all along: Birds are individuals.

Duration: 4′07″


Chickadees in the News

Last week on my birderblog, I posted an editorial from the New York Times about chickadees. To me, the conclusion of the study this editorial was based on was rather a no-brainer—that European titmice are quite individual. I’ve been watching my backyard chickadees for years, feeding them out of my hand, and although they almost all look identical, their behaviors are very different, and their individuality is obvious. Anyway, writers at the New York Times, who apparently don’t handfeed their chickadees, finally got the message. Their editorial from last Thursday reads:

‘’Bird feeders across much of America are mobbed with black-capped chickadees at this time of year. Can you tell them apart, one by one? Probably not; it’s hard enough to distinguish male from female in this species, let alone recognize individuals in a flock. But scientists are starting to suggest that if we look closely enough, we can distinguish birds of a single species by personality. A team of Dutch scientists, testing a European relative of the chickadee, has found that some birds are shy and others are bold, broad personality differences that have a genetic foundation. This finding doesn’t erode the basic differences between Homo sapiens and Poecile atricapillus (the black-capped chickadee). But it substantially enlarges the similarities.

‘’We take the range of personalities among individuals in our species for granted, yet it seems surprising to think of similar diversity in other species. Many people find the implications of that genuinely shocking. If bird personalities have a strong genetic and evolutionary basis, there is good reason to suspect that human personalities do, too.

‘’Humans do not like to think of themselves as animals. Nor do they like to think that their behavior may have genetic or evolutionary roots. But the richer perspective - morally and intellectually - lies in examining and coming to terms with the kinship of all life. There’s a certain tragic isolation in believing that humans stand apart in every way from the creatures that surround them, that the rest of creation was shaped exclusively for our use. The real fruit of that perspective is, in fact, tragic isolation on an earth that has been eroded by our moral assumptions. Science has something much wiser to tell us about who we are. So do the birds around us.’‘

Wasn’t that a splendid editorial? When we open our eyes to the truth—that we humans may have evolved much more highly than the creatures around us, but that we still share extremely similar biochemistry and a shocking amount of genetic material—we can appreciate the Old Testament maxim that there’s nothing new under the sun, including us. We share a kinship with chickadees, and when we meet their eyes and see that there really is someone home in there—a being to be reckoned with—our lives are enriched and we become more willing to pitch in and ensure that our fellow creatures can thrive side by side with us.