The Suitcase Lady


January 8, 2013, 10:17 pm

Even the bird experts at Cornell University succumb to using the word “cute” when referring to black-capped chickadees: “A bird universally considered ‘cute’ thanks to its oversize round head, tiny body and curiosity about everything, including humans.”

We are the fortunate hosts to a bustling flock of chickadees in our feeders this winter. In summer, the chickadee diet is mostly insects; now it is mostly seeds. The birds usually feed one bird at a time as the flocks have a pecking order. The most dominant bird goes first, grabs one seed and flies off to eat or cache its treasure. The subordinates follow one by one. Striped sunflower seeds and suet are favorites on their menus. The bird books say chickadees like peanuts, but our peanut offerings have been completely shunned.

Chickadees have an amazing trick to remember where their cached seeds are hidden. Their brain neurons with old information regularly die and are replaced with new neurons to process new information, thus insuring adaptation to changes in their flocks and environments. Chickadees from Alaska have the most brain power. Harsher winters mean they have to eat more and remember more hiding places. They are up to it.

Ever the winter wimp, I marvel at how a half ounce bird survives subzero nights. But chickadees have several adaptations to stay toasty including dense winter coats, winter roost cavities, cached food and regulated hypothermia. The latter means that on frigid winter nights the birds can drop their body temperature 12 to 15 degrees below their daytime temperature thus saving huge amounts of energy. Chickadees accomplish this regulated hypothermia by reducing the amount of shivering they do.

The chickadee call is their name, “chick a dee dee dee”. Extra “dees” in the call indicates serious danger. I’ve heard this deeing frenzy and realized that one of our indoor cats had snuck out. Thanks, chickadees, for the cat alert.

Perhaps my favorite feature of chickadees is their fearlessness. Stand quietly next to the feeders and they fly within inches. Stay extremely still with birdseed in a hand or hat brim and you may become a bird feeder!

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