For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadee Anniversary 2004
Laura celebrated the 29th anniversary of seeing her first Black-capped Chickadee by feeding her backyard chickadees by hand, when what to her wondering eyes should appear but a Boreal Chickadee.
Twenty-nine years ago, on March 2, 1975, I saw and identified my first Black-capped Chickadee at Baker Woodlot, on the Michigan State University campus, and was instantly transformed into an anal-retentive, life-list-keeping birder. That one cooperative little bird who flitted in the branches all around me, allowing me plenty of time to look and listen as I rifled through my field guide, started me on a life-long adventure and firmly embedded chickadees in the deepest place in my heart.
So naturally, on March 2nd this year, I spent much of the day looking at my backyard chickadees, who entertain and keep me company while I work at my desk at an upstairs window. Chickadee flocks come and go throughout the day, and mine have me well-trained—whenever they visit my yard, several of them sit on the branches of the box elder right next to the window, giving me long, hard stares until I get up and grab some mealworms, crank open the window, and feed them by hand. I get to observe intimate little behaviors, see their interesting interactions, and feel as if I’ve become one of the flock. Ever since I started hand-feeding them, my chickadees have come to recognize me, by sight and voice. When I go out to the backyard now, the chickadees fly in much closer than they used to, and the few times I’ve held out my hand in the yard, the chickadees have quickly flown in for mealworms, something I could never get them to do in the past. Chickadee flocks have a well-organized and strict dominance structure, and when the chickadees fly in, it’s very easy to figure out which are dominant over which. They don’t squabble—the lower ones simply wait until the higher ones have grabbed a mealworm and flown off. One chickadee who is in about the middle of the hierarchy is the tamest—when it’s his or her turn to fly in, he sits on my hand for sometimes as long as a minute, carefully sorting through the mealworms and selecting the two plumpest ones. A couple of the chickadees are extremely timid, sometimes flitting in and then chickening out before they even light. Most of them fly to a nearby branch and then to my hand, but a couple fly all the way across the yard straight to my hand. It’s fun to try to tell them apart by these interesting behaviors.
On March 2, I was feeling very happy and fulfilled to have these wonderful birds so embedded in the fabric of my daily life. And while I was feeding them lunch, suddenly I noticed a special chickadee treat—a Boreal Chickadee had flown in and was sitting in my lilac bush among them. This one didn’t come to my hand, but what a lovely treat! Boreal Chickadees aren’t nearly as abundant as their black-capped relatives, and are tricky to find because their quiet chickadee call, like a black-capped chickadee with a terminal disease, isn’t given very often. They live up to their name, being denizens of the boreal forest, found most typically in black spruce and tamarack forests or old spruce and pine woods, but even there are not usually as common as Black-caps. Birders from all over the US flock to northern Minnesota specifically to add them to their lifelists. I’ve had them in my yard during the course of a few winters in the two decades I’ve lived here, but haven’t had them here in a few years. So I was delighted to see this one.
But even with the rarer species among them, my heart belongs to my own little Black-capped Chickadees, who are with me every day, no matter what the weather, no matter whether I’m happy or sad, busy or lounging. When they peek in the window, or get impatient and tap on the glass, attention must be paid. They bring happiness and joy to my life, and every time one lights on my hand and looks confidingly into my eyes with its own sparkly black eyes, filled with spunk and enthusiasm, I’m transfixed, and reminded of the lines in a Robert Frost poem, “Still they stood,/ A great wave from it going over them,/ As if the earth in one unlooked-for favor/ Had made them certain earth returned their love.