Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Chickadee Winter

Winter morning, about 12 degrees F. As usual one of the first things I do in the morning is to refill feeders and put them back on the poles. I take the feeders off one of the pole at night because, until I got a new baffle, the deer would stand on the old one and knock at the longer feeder to get the seed to fall. (In the process, the deer knocked out several large holes, prompting the replacement.)

Black-capped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)
Now, refilled, I am outside hanging them on the pole. A black-capped chickadee is in the nearby dogwood tree and it flies to the top of the feeder pole over my head. We look at each other and it takes off for the tree again until I finish attaching the feeders and walk away. Then it comes to feed.

Had I been wearing a bowl of seed on my head it would've flown to it and taken one.

Another morning I put one of the feeders down on the lawn to go inside and get something. I came out and found a chickadee had flown down to grab a seed, taking advantage of my absence.

I have lots of chickadee stories.

My three favorite birds are the cardinal, the Carolina wren and the black-capped "dee." They are my favorites for different reasons. The cardinals are big, red and travel in pairs. When the male feeds the female a seed during mating season they look like they are kissing. You could call them the marriage birds.

Carolina wrens sing all year long and are not common visitors to my yard, making their appearance this year at the seed and suet feeders a sign of just how cold it is. I used to think the wrens sang only to defend territory but they also sing warning. They are a reliable alarm for the other birds.

Carolina wren (Margo D. Beller)
The dee, however, is a favorite because it is not put off by people. They have learned that when I come out on my enclosed porch and rap on the glass to disperse the horde of house sparrows and house finches from the house-shaped feeder, they can zip in and get seed before the horde returns. (The dee's cousin, the tufted titmouse, also does this).

They will eat from your hand if you stand there with arm outstretched long enough. They can be made tame that way, as I have seen at several parks where people put a seed in their hands and the birds readily come and feed. In fact, if you don't do that they will literally fly in your face and call, as if to say, "See me, feed me." This has happened to me many times.

They make all sorts of cute sounds from the gurgling and "dee-dee-dee" calls that give them their name to the song that starts at a very high note and then falls, sounding like "hey, sweetie." I was on a hawk watch once, my first one. It was a hard climb and, to my horror, there was no place to sit, not even a boulder. Hawks were specks in the sky and as counters called out "sharpy" or "broadwing," I couldn't keep up. However, at eye level, close to me, was that gurgling and a flock of about 15 chickadees were feeding right up on the mountain.

I have seen dees exploring an outdoor telephone booth back in the pre-cellphone days. They are the most reliable visitors to my brother-in-law's feeders in New Hampshire, where it is far colder than where I live. Like other birds dees find shelter wherever they can get out of the cold and wind and puff up to trap air under their downy feathers.

(Margo D. Beller)
I like them because they take a seed and fly off to crack it open, holding the seed in their feed and pecking at it. They don't sit there and block the feeders as those sparrows and finches do. A dee I saw this morning had a seed, flew to the pear tree in front of me (standing on the other side of the glass) and pecked at it. When the wind blew it turned its back. At one point it continued pecking hanging nearly upside down like an acrobat before righting itself and finishing its meal. Then it flew back for another seed.

I've seen them take mouthfuls of snow for moisture, too. Unfortunately, I've also seen them picked off by hungry sharp-shinned hawks, an unpleasant side effect of putting out feeders.

There are many different types of chickadees. The ones I've seen from southern New Jersey on south are Carolina chickadees. They look virtually the same except they are a little more pale, a tiny bit smaller and their calls are faster. Another one I would love to see is the boreal chickadee, which I could find if I go up into the higher elevations of northern New York State or New England.

According to Cornell University's Ornithology Lab, which runs the annual Great Backyard Birdcount every February in conjunction with the national Audubon Society, last year the black-capped chickadee was reported on 16 checklists in my home county of Morris, the 23rd most seen bird behind the robin, starling and Canada goose, among others.

There were years when I was lucky to see one dee in my backyard. This year I've discovered a family of them roosting in my yew hedge, which I don't trim at the top because the deer eat at it from the bottom. That thick part at the top hides a lot of birds.

I'm happy to have them there. And when this year's bird count takes place Feb. 13-16, I look forward to counting them.

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