The Chickadee

In late March, a thrilling, unmistakable sound stopped Jean and I in our tracks and turned our eyes heavenward to sight Canadian Geese. Think back to the times you were mesmerized by the distinctive honking of geese provoking feelings of connections to eons of bygone ancestors equally mesmerized by the sound and sight.

Think too of how the haunting, primitive call of the loon make you feel. How soulfully important these experiences are to us. To lose even one of these notes from the wilderness orchestra is too sad to contemplate. One cannot isolate or elevate one voice without decreasing the glory of the whole. Yet, we can appreciate the indignant trapper railing against the decision to honour the loon on our currency. “Where is the loon when I am trying to keep warm by a fire at 40 below. He is laughing his head off in Florida. Who comes to cheer me – the chickadee, that’s who. He is the true symbol of Canada!”

How does such a tiny, delicate bird abide our winters? It is their remarkable capacity to lower their body temperature. To help survive freezing nights they each excavate their own cavity in rotten wood or other cavity.

I imagine them kin to the wolf family. Often in a pack, occasionally alone. When a loner finds me on the trail with a pocket of sunflower seeds, he seems to summon his social family to the hunt. They have a pecking order and the Alfa chickadee deals aggressively with out-of-line subordinates.

Each is unique. Some are timid and cautiously watch their colleagues take seeds from my hand. Some are cunning appearing to be either sloppy or picky eaters spitting seeds to the ground but later seen to be retrieving them. If I don‘t heed their call they fly in front of my face as if to say “I hope you are not as blind as you are deaf!” They typically take a seed to a nearby tree where they hammer it to break through the shell. Braver ones have hammered the shell against my thumb. Some land on my hand, cock their head and eye me closely as if trying to decipher my soothing words. Their language is complex. Listen closely. As perceived threat increases they add additional ‘dee‘ notes to their ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ call.

How do their small brains manage to recall a thousand or more caches containing a single seed? They do so by shedding brain neurons containing outdated information and replace them with new ones ready for action.

I have seen chickadees appearing to eat a dead chipmunk, but assumed they were scavenging insects off the body. However, this January Jean photographed a chickadee pulling off strips of meat and fat from a bone. A literature search indicated that 50 % of their diet in the winter and 60 to 90% in the summer consists of animal foods – insects, spiders, meat and fat from carcasses.

What I love most about chickadees is how wonderfully they reflect the healing and therapeutic nature of wilderness. Old or young never fail to have their spirits lifted when a chickadee land on their hand to take a seed. I don‘t have space to relate many wonderful experiences, so I will let this one suffice. A special needs child had a look of horror as a chickadee landed on my hand. I asked if she would like to try. She recoiled in fear, but observed closely as the chickadee continued to visit the outstretched hand of her mother. Finally she agreed to try. What a transformational experience! What would have taken 45 minutes to get to Blueberry Mountain took a couple of well-spent hours. As a social worker I know no human therapist could have had such an impact on this child. A moment to be savoured. None of us remained unmoved. I know this transactional moment brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. (originally posted April 2013)