The Charm of the Chickadees, the Music of the Season

Occasionally, University employees submit creative writing pieces that we share with others. Below is one by Lakin Khan, administrative coordinator in the Biology Department.
Back in mid-November, we were slipping into cold weather faster than we'd wanted to; mornings close to freezing; fog icy and brittle. In this chilled quietness, I liked to go out on a mid-afternoon quest for the little birds, so easily over-looked in the noisy bustle of spring and summer. Moseying past the small groves of trees and bushes scattered around campus, scarf snug against my neck, binocs in hand, my mind would be pleasantly off-line, at least in the work-sense. Leaves drifting off branches in lazy spirals or raining down in a brief gust of wind. The sky would now be a high blue; the sun already descending, slanting across the grounds, setting the wide yellow aprons under the gingko trees glowing, the Japanese maples ablaze. Soon enough would come the raspy pretty, pretty bird - pretty bird-bird-bird, then that bit of grey with the perky pointed crest: an oak titmouse in the lower branches of a pine tree. A pure, sweet warble, short and swift, and then movement up the trunk: a brown creeper, hungrily gleaning insects against the long, cold night.

So I would stand there, binoculars plastered to my face (folks steering wide around me, convinced that I'd finally lost it), scarf starting to trail and my hat stuffed into my pocket as little bird calls , tseet! seet! seemed to come from everywhere, in and around and about the bushes: there! a flock of tiny, grey bushtits sweeping though, moving too fast to sight on any one of them before they were gone. Yet there'd still be a steady, high-pitched chip! cheep! coming from somewhere; then a buzzy chee-dee, chee-dee-dee!, similar to the titmouse, but cheekier, smoother, not as scruffy. A flash of white, a bit of russet and black, yes! A chickadee, flitting through the leaves and along the branches, flying in short, undulating bursts from spot to spot.

Our chickadee, Poecile rufuscens, the chestnut-backed chickadee, is one of five species residing on the North American continent. It's a cheeky, bouncy little ball of a bird, barely five inches from stem to stern and weighing about as much as a handful of paper clips. Its short black tail and large head, with a dark, stubby beak, wide, white "mutton chops" and bright, busy eyes, gives this energetic little bird its undeniably cute shape. Dapper, too, with a black cap and a lustrous ruddy-brown cape over its back, often extending along its flanks. A chickadee always looks ready to attend the opera.

I love these cheerful little mites, so chipper and hardy, darting about the pine trees by the Ponds or in the brush along the creek, never still for more than it takes to catch an insect from under a piece of bark or pry a seed out of a pod, then flying off to a nearby perch to gobble or to reconnoiter a hiding spot for their wriggly treasure.


Our chestnut backed chickadees prefer the coniferous forests that range from the central California coast up through Canada to mid-Alaska, though they are quite happy to visit suburban backyard feeders, especially those with black sunflower seeds and suet. Chickadees are year-round residents in their territory and do not migrate, not even those species of the northern states, like the black-capped chickadee, which ranges from Maine, through the Dakotas and the Rockies, and well into Canada and Alaska. Not even the grey-headed chickadee, which lives only in North-Central Alaska, a hop-skip-and-jump from the Arctic Circle. Brrrr! How do they do it?

Several adaptations have evolved that let them survive these harsh winters. Chickadees eat like crazy all day long;, gaining a clip's worth of weight every day and burning it away each night. Their feathers can stand straight out from their body, giving them an inch or more of insulating heat-trapping down; in the far northern climes, there can be a 100 degrees of difference in that important inch, from feather tip to skin side. They will also lower their body temperature to conserve energy during the night, a state known as torpor; unusual for birds, but certainly necessary for these mighty mites.

Chickadees also cache food, spending a good part of the late summer and fall stashing seeds and insects for the winter. They are scatter-hoarders, tucking stuff all over the place. An interesting series of studies revealed that the chickadee's hippocampus, the site of memory in the brain, increases in size during fall and winter in response to the need to remember the various locations of their scattered pantry. In the spring, when the storeroom's depleted and nourishment is everywhere at hand, the hippocampus shrinks. Now, if that isn't a model for using it or losing it, I don't know what is.

Their staunch cheerfulness in the face of fierce weather can be uplifting to a flagging winter mood - the flurry of a chickadee flock, known collectively as a banditry or a dissimulation, never fails to put a grin on my face. Banditry? Perhaps because of the mask-like appearance of their faces - or their boldness around humans, grabbing what they want, almost from under our noses, and flitting off with it, to hide their treasure. A dissimulation seems a more apt description, as chickadees are so hard to pinpoint - a glimpse at the corner of your eye does not mean the bird will be there when you turn to look; for by then, the little fluff-ball is already somewhere else - and then somewhere else, ducking behind the trunk, swinging upside down from a pinecone, poking leaves looking for caterpillars.

While generally operating in small family groups through the warm seasons, chickadees like to hang out in loose flocks of several different species for the winter, that might include nuthatches, a titmouse or two, often woodpeckers, the busybody bushtits revolving all around them as well. Perhaps it's a case of many eyes make light work searching for dormant bugs and seeds, but there's also warmth and safety in numbers. Chickadees seem to be the town-crier of the group. Their complex vocalizations, with up to thirteen different calls, inform others of the general goings-on: greetings to arrivals, good food here calls, the chip - chip - chips keeping everyone in contact, and buzzy, brusque danger calls, alerting all that a predator is nearby.

On these still, short days, the busyness of the chickadees, so essential to their survival, is a cheerful antidote to the encroaching darkness of mid-winter. With their distinctive calls and "top-hat-and-tails" look, they remind me to listen to the music of the season and dance the dance of winter: staying active and lively in daylight and snugly, warm and well-fed through the night. And, come to think of it, isn't that what the upcoming holidays are all about?

Here are a few links with photos and more information about the chestnut-backed chickadee:

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