Ruth Bass: Chickadees are friendly watch birds

Monday December 10, 2012

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While parrots live so long that they end up being an inheritance, ordinary backyard birds have pretty short lives. The ubiquitous chickadee’s life span is apparently extraordinary when it gets into double digits, with records from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reporting that the oldest known chickadee in the wild reached 12 years, 5 months.

We must have some of those senior citizens around here because a few start scolding me sometime in September, wondering where the easy food is, and it’s been a long time since we fed birds in September. We see them all summer, and they sort of fade away until foliage time, which is when our feeders used to go out.

The black bears won that battle about 10 years ago, and somewhere on the mountain behind us, there’s a big, squirrel-proof feeder one of them somehow hauled away. We did search the mountainside and actually found the small feeder ball the marauders took, but the big one never showed up.

That was the end of making chickadees happy in the fall. Now they forage on their own around here until we think the bears might have curled up for some snoozing. But despite the passage of time, our chickadees still seem to know that they are supposed to be fed here as soon as summer passes - so we assume some of them are getting on in years and harbor memories of the good old days.

And perhaps they do. The Cornell people say the small birds hide seeds and other food items all over the place and have the ability to remember thousands of places where they have a cache. Even people who can’t tell a flicker from a mourning dove know the little chickadee, which happens to be the state bird for Massachusetts -- and Maine. And it would be hard not to like them. They are very cute, quick and either friendly or afraid of nothing. They don’t fly away when people and dogs approach, and my cousin’s husband was one of the patient people who let them eat sunflower seeds off the bill of his baseball cap.


Part of their charm is that they do spend time with people. We’ve often walked in the woods with a chickadee flying along nearby, chattering away, flying ahead, then flying back to us. They talk a lot and in various ways. One of their clear calls definitely says "phoebe," and we had to learn that the actual phoebe says the same thing but seems to have laryngitis. The chickadee is chime clear.

The Cornell bird people consider chickadees great communicators, with each other and with the various birds, like titmice and nuthatches, that tend to flock with them. They warn about predators, and Cornell says the number of extra "dees" in the "chick-a-dee-dee" call indicates the danger level.

They do love their sunflower seeds. While goldfinches perch at the feeder and eat right there, chickadees pick out a seed and take it to a branch where they pound it open with their beaks. It takes a lot of seeds to keep that half-ounce body going, especially when the temperature plunges.

They like peanut butter, too, and one of my grandmothers would rig up a sling for her "empty" peanut butter container, hang it in a bush and watch the fearless chickadees go right inside and work it clean. They also love suet, and once upon a time meat departments gave away chunks of it for free. No more.

But it’s not expensive, and woodpeckers will quickly join the chickadees when a slab of suet in a net bag (like the ones that hold tangerines or onions at the market) is hung in a tree, high enough so a meandering dog doesn’t grab it.

Remember, if they dee-dee a streak, it’s a red alert. These tiny creatures are Birdland Security, working hard to keep their friends safe.


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