Al Batt: Chickadees — why they’re a favorite bird

Published 8:23 pm Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Tales From Exit 22 by Al Batt


It’s state law that grandparents have to feed birds.

I have bird feeders. I grew up doing chores. Maintaining feeders is a pleasant chore.

My favorite bird is the chickadee, an economy-sized whirlwind. There are seven species of chickadees. The frequenter of my feeders is the black-capped chickadee.

I watched a chickadee fly to a feeder, grab a seed and fly off quickly to eat or cache it in a safer place. The tiny bird acted as if it were stealing the seed, which might be the reason a collective term for chickadees is a banditry.

Anyone who has a bird feeder has noticed a pecking order for the customers. It’s as if they are subject to a chart displaying the organizational hierarchy of a corporation.

In a study spearheaded by Cornell Lab of Ornithology postdoctoral associate Eliot Miller, 136 bird species were rated as to their dominance at a feeder relative to other species. It’s sort of an avian job performance review. The higher a bird’s score, the loftier its position on the pecking order, what behavioral ecologists might call a dominance hierarchy. A general rule is that bigger birds rule the roost.

The scores for my yard birds ranged from the wild turkey at 66.93 to the American crow at 20.89 to the ruby-throated hummingbird at -22.34. Some birds people consider bullies rated as follows: European starling 3.14, common grackle 4.21, house sparrow -1.68 and blue jay 2.34. Pugnacious woodpeckers included the hairy at 2.41 and red-bellied 3.22. The downy notched a -.64. Numbers don’t mean everything. The house finch (-3.21) dominates the purple finch (-3.92) and the purple finch dominates the dark-eyed junco (-3.44), but the junco dominates the house finch. Starlings (3.14) dominate red-headed woodpeckers (3.22), red-headed woodpeckers are dominant to red-bellied woodpeckers (4.14), and red-bellieds rule starlings

A mourning dove is 1.13, chipping sparrow -4.95, northern cardinal -.55, white-breasted nuthatch -2.51, red-breasted nuthatch -3.50 and American goldfinch -4.90. Where does my beloved chickadee fall into this? It’s at -5.07. Chickadees started at the bottom and managed to stay there. I know how that is. I, a mere mortal, board a commercial flight behind platinum, gold, silver, aluminum and tinfoil members. And because one pecking order doesn’t provide enough stress, there is a pecking order just for chickadees. One bird becomes the CEO of that CPO (chickadee pecking order).

A chickadee’s winter territory may encompass more than 10 acres with countless hiding places for food. It hides comestibles with the skill of someone cheating on a diet. A chickadee can remember for 40 days and 40 nights the thousands of places where it stashed food. Each fall, the chickadee’s brain neurons containing old information die and are replaced with new neurons allowing adaptation to changes in its environment. The old files, cobwebs and all, are deleted. This seasonal brain change allows chickadees to better recall locations of food caches and to prosper as game show contestants, but causes them to forget their junior high school locker combination.

I can’t remember what I had for lunch today and I’m eating it as I write. It’s either a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a jelly and peanut butter sandwich.

Chickadees are important birds. They make chickadee-dee-dee calls using increasing numbers of dee notes when alarmed. Other bird species pay attention to this early warning system and react accordingly. Chickadees are highly communicative and call when finding food. This alerts not only chickadees, but other birds as well. They follow chickadees to the food. A chickadee is that friend who always knows the best place to eat.

Achilles shares his heel with every living creature. There is a one-legged chickadee in my yard. It has balance issues that are evident when it alights upon a feeder, but it’s getting by. This one-legged chickadee was chased by a hummingbird that punched beyond its weight class like no-see-ums bite. It might have been the element of surprise as when a Chihuahua ambushes a Great Dane. Maybe they flew together so they could use the carpool lane.

A chickadee doesn’t make an enemy of its position in the pecking order. It can’t lift weights or take a self-defense class. A chickadee doesn’t seek revenge by putting tiny whoopee cushions on perches of blue jays.

As a good Minnesotan, a chickadee knows things could be worse.

A friend is fond of saying, “If you aren’t in the obituaries, you have nothing to complain about.“

That’s true even when you’re being chased by a hummingbird.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.