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Al Batt: My dear little chickadees

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


I dreamed of chickadees.

My favorite bird is the chickadee. There are things that turn frowns upside down. A chickadee does that for me.

It’s not a state law that we all must have a favorite bird, but it’s a good idea. You never know when it’ll come in handy or be included in a pop quiz. It goes without saying that it’d look good on a resume.

I first noticed chickadees when I was a dear boy. I had a great interest in nature and a chickadee had an outsized talent to entertain me. I wasn’t the only one smitten by them. His real name was either William Claude Dunkenfield or Claude William Dunkenfield. In 1908, he legally changed his name to W. C. Fields. In the 1932 movie “If I Had a Million,” Joseph Mankiewicz, the screenwriter, had Fields addressing a female character as a “little bird.” Fields reworded it and “My little chickadee” became a catchphrase and a term of endearment used by the comic actor. In 1940, the phrase was used as the title of a film starring Fields and Mae West.

In the film “The Bank Dick,” Egbert Sousé, the character played by Fields, said, “Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl!” I try not to be one.

A chickadee makes me smile without doing anything more than being. The chickadee is in my birding sweet spot. In 2017, I spent too much time in a hospital trying to determine when the machines I was hooked to were making good beeps and when they were making bad beeps, all the while hoping to avoid a plague of locusts. Freed from that confinement, I found walking difficult and birding nearly impossible. I decided to count chickadees, with 1,000 being my goal. I didn’t need the math skills of Albert Einstein to do that and I didn’t care if it was the same chickadee repeatedly, if I saw it, I counted it. I told no one, holding my own soft celebration upon achieving that minor goal. I counted 1,000 chickadees again this year. I went the distance as Rocky had done in whichever one of his 13 to 40 movies he went the distance. Chickadees added up more quickly than in 2017.

Research shows a chickadee’s brain grows up to 30% larger when it needs to find food for caching. The brain expands to help it remember where it had stored food. In the spring, when memory is less important, the brain shrinks to normal size. Chickadees living in harsher winters have better spatial memories and larger brains than those farther south. Neuroscientists are studying to see why there are no senior moments for chickadees.

Bob Holtz, a friend living in Roseville told me he’d decided to see how many days he could observe chickadees in 2010. He missed five days. He started over and his streak ended at 675 consecutive days. That didn’t include days when he wasn’t in Minnesota. Bob said, “When one does this type of thing, one sets his own rules. Those were mine. I loved it. It was surprising how many times I would look out at my bird feeders, see a chickadee come flying in and feel a big smile spread across my face. Glad I did it, but sorry to see it end. Of course, there is always tomorrow!” Bob told me he watches chickadees because it makes him happy. That’s a mighty fine reason.

I don’t care which chickadee I see or where I see it. There are seven species of chickadees: gray-headed (the rarest chickadee in North America), Mexican, boreal, chestnut-sided, mountain, Carolina and black-capped chickadee. The black-capped is the most widespread and the one seen in my yard. Black-capped chickadees produce a short, whistled “fee-bee” song, which I’ve described as “Spring’s-here,” “Sweet-ie,” or “Love-you.” Chickadees are like mall security. They’re the first to sound the alarm when they spot a predator. They make the call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” The more “dees” there are, the more danger they perceive. Chickadees have a heart rate of 480 beats per minute and up. That seems important to me.

The birds belong to everyone; the best things in life are free. Hidden gems are everywhere. I could be in the most unfamiliar of places, but if I saw a chickadee, that place would feel like home to me.

I’m no jabbernowl, I count chickadees each day. It softens the edges of this damndemic.

And I’m following my dream.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday.