My Little Chickadee

Article and photos by Wayne Ferrier

Chickadee Branch She says she doesn't really go for millionaires, she rather prefers surfer dudes, SUV guys, et cetera, not Mr. Private Plane, even though she is known as the millionaire matchmaker. She has a hot new DVD out titled “How To Get Married In A Year,” but she is as yet unmarried herself. She has been called the Simon Cowell of dating, known for making quick, straight forward comments. I confess I had no idea who Patti Stranger was when I first saw her as a guest on the Nate Berkus show a couple weeks ago. I don't really watch much TV, and I only had The Nate Show on as background noise, when I heard Patti giving her dating advice to some of the people in the audience. Jen, a pretty blond, was invited to come up on stage, have a seat, and ask Patti for guidance.

Jen had been on a date and it was really, really awkward. Patti leaned forward interested. Jen revealed that they had met for the first time in a restaurant and it was going fine until they started talking about their hobbies. Jen's date said that his hobby was—of all things—birdwatching. Patti's face turned sour, registering first dismay then unabashed disgust. Nate saw Patti's intense reaction to Jen's revelation and burst into hysterical, almost embarrassed, laughter. While the audience roared, Nate's face turned a shade redder and stayed that way though the entire interaction. But this was the exact response Jen was looking for. She squealed, “Yes exactly! Patti, that's why I need help, because I just can't just look at him and say next! So I let him go on and on about this story about birdwatching.”

Patti's advice: “Every girl needs a hundred dollars in a different compartment of her purse called stash cash, you always have to have it, whether you're in a city or a suburb, it doesn't matter, to get out of Dodge. So you get up and you say to him, I think you're a really great guy, I think you're awesome, you're just not my type, I don't want to waste your time, I don't want to hold you up, I think I'm going to get going. But if I know somebody I'll send them your way. There's no wasting time, you're too hot and single to be wasting time on a birdwatcher!”

Jen replied, “Oh that's good!” To Nate's defense he didn't respond much, he wrapped it up and went onto the next question. I was a little taken aback. Are birdwatchers really that revolting? Maybe this explains why I haven't had a decent date in awhile. I'm not really a birdwatcher per se. I don't own a pair of binoculars, and I don't travel to all the best birding sites around North America just to see birds. However, when I find myself in those sites I often approach a birder and ask them a couple questions, as very often their knowledge of the local ecosystem may be rather extensive. I do admit to having a couple feeders hanging near my house. And I try to learn as much about birds as I can. I listen to their songs and attempt to learn who is who and what they're saying. According to Patti Stranger's standards, I don't have a lot going for me. I'm too old, even though I am around Patti Stranger's age. I probably won't become a millionaire anytime soon, unless I get lucky playing the lottery. I haven't been surfing in years. And I'm probably worse in habits than your common everyday variety birdwatcher. I'm into all kinds of nature, not just birds. This may explain my recent bombs on the dating scene. I do just about everything wrong. I once showed up on a date driving a Plymouth Voyager instead of an SUV. I know, I know! And once I elected to go to the Nature Preserve rather than to hike to the waterfall that the girl really wanted to see. Asked what I did over the weekend by another girl, I admitted that I had wasted a perfectly good Sunday studying aquatic invertebrates in a stream in the woods. She never called back. Now you know what kind of a guy I am—one of those who goes on and on about nature.

So here I go again. Relatively tiny, chickadees are unafraid of humans. Even wild caught birds rapidly adjust to captivity. There are more than forty species of them, chickadees and titmice (genus Parus), which are found in most habitats in the Northern Hemisphere. And this is why I'm primarily interested in them. They coexist well with humans. They even thrive living among us. In this way I am different from those environmentalists who worry endlessly over every fragile species and neglect, or even hate, the more robust ones. Chickadees have all those qualities that make them robust survivors. They are small, adaptable, can live close to or away from people. They tolerate a wide variety of habitats across a very large geographical range. Most northernly chickadee populations don't migrate, even in the absence of feeders. Yet they have been more successful than many types of neotropical birds, who are now facing numerous challenges in both their summer and winter sites, and a reduction of numbers.

Staying north all winter, chickadees need to keep warm, and on particularly cold nights, most, if not all, of their fat reserves can be depleted by morning. So they must get up early and replenish. It may seem to those of us who feed them, that all they care about are sunflower seeds. But this is not quite true. In the summer they are mostly insectivorous and include more vegetable matter only during the winter months. Their vegetarian diet might include bayberries, blackberries, blueberries, poison ivy berries, goldenrod, ragweed, sumac, wild cherries, the fruits of tulip trees, and the seeds of coniferous trees. Animal food preferred are caterpillars, even pests like gypsy moths and tent caterpillars, which many other birds won't go for. They also like animal fat (that's why they readily eat the suet you put out), and in the forests they will feed on animals as big as a dead deer carcass, pecking through the skin to get at the subcutaneous fat. They have even been seen feeding on dead skunks. Tufted Titmouse

Natural born profiteers, they prefer quality food over quantity, and will choose sites that offer the best kind of food, rather than any old food, first. Then they like a regular source. If you are feeding them, keep your feeders stocked with quality seed and suet or they may leave and go to a site that's more dependable. On cold and windy days they usually feed at lower heights and higher elevations on calmer days; so if you want more birds around, place your feeders at strategically different elevations. Dominant birds prefer to feed at the safest sites, which means away from predators, like the neighbor's cat.

Many Parids store food. They often prepare the food before it is cached. Insects are usually beheaded and perhaps some other parts are removed as well. Sunflower seeds and suet are also stored. Chickadees can store hundreds, if not thousands, of items per day. They don't stock it in just one place however, but each item is stored in a different location; yet these little birds seem to remember where it all is! Later they may retrieve the items and move them to yet another, safer location, farther away from the food source. They usually start removing the best quality food first, from the primary cache site to secondary or even tertiary cache sites later. (This kind of memory is impossible for humans, as most of us can't remember anything more complected than a telephone number. I have trouble even finding my car keys). Storage sites can be just about anywhere: cracks and crevasses, under pieces of bark, inside curled leaves and in needle clusters of conifers, wedged in the edges of broken tree branches, buried in the ground or beneath snow.

This system of multiple cache sites may help each bird keep its stash away from other birds who might come across it. Birds don't seem to be able to spy on other birds to find their stash though. It seems the experience of physically moving food items around puts it in their memory. Some of the most interesting work on avian memory being conducted today is on Parids. Downy Woodpecker

During the non-breeding season Parids often travel in mixed-species flocks, which consist of insectivorous birds of different species that move together while foraging. These mixed-species flocks are distinctly different from simple feeding aggregations, which are groups of several species of birds at areas of locally high food availability. A mixed-species foraging flock typically has a nuclear species that seems to be central to its formation and movement. Species that trail them are called attendant species. Attendants usually join the foraging flock only when the flock enters their territory. In the North Temperate Zone, mixed species foraging flocks are often led by chickadees and tits, and are joined by kinglets, nuthatches, treecreepers, warblers, and woodpeckers.

There is some evidence of social learning among Chickadee species—they seem to learn from each other, and to some extent partition out duties, where individuals specialize. And even in mixed flocks each bird might have a contributory duty. For example, woodpeckers benefit being in the flock where they are protected by the always alert Parids who give warning when something is amiss, while the woodpeckers might prove useful because they can dig for insects underneath the rotting wood of dead trees, exposing the goods for the rest of the flock.

During the non-breeding season winter flocks have a relatively stable membership from September to March. Flock sizes are usually larger in the northern ranges than in the south. Regular supplemental food, such as feeders, can increase flock size and several flocks may share a feeder. Though there may be some inter-flock territorial disputes, arguments are more common earlier in the season and become more relaxed as winter progresses. A flock's range is usually distinct and may be as large as forty acres. Flocks are based on some kind of hierarchical system and therefore some kind of individual recognition is going on here. Chickadees can clearly tell the rank of a bird some distance away. Gotta love those Parids. And thanks for listening.

So Patti, that date we had lined up, I don't think it's going to work out. You can save your stash cash. I think you're a really great girl, in fact you're awesome. It's just you're not my type.

Works Consulted:

Smith, Susan M. 1991 “The Black-capped Chickadee, Behavioral Ecology and Natural History” Cornell University Press.