Archive for February 2nd, 2007

Chickadee tree


Chickadees are probably one of my favorite birds, most likely because of the time I spent living in Alaska.  As I got to know them, I started to admire their pluck, their amazing ability to survive.

I was astonished to realize that there were birds that chose to stay in Fairbanks for the entire winter.  Well, I knew there were ravens, snowy owls, and willow ptarmigan that wintered over, but I labored under the delusion that all the small birds migrated out of the area.   While I was going to the UofA, I hadn’t noticed any songbirds staying around for the winter.

So, it was with a great deal of surprise that I observed chickadees flitting around our place in November the winter after we had built our cabin in the woods.   I got out my bird book and ascertained that what I was seeing was the boreal chickadee.  I could not see how a little tiny bird could possibly make a living at -40 degrees, and I truly enjoyed their chat in my woods.   So, forthwith, I induced my husband to fabricate a bird feeder, and I began providing handouts, which consisted of any fat that was produced by my cooking and raw shelled sunflower seeds.

It didn’t take the chickadees long to discover my largesse.   The squirrels started availing themselves of it also, so I added raw unshelled peanuts to the menu.  I spent a lot of pleasant hours sitting in my arm chair watching the birds and squirrels.   So did my cats, and I got plenty of amusement watching them watch what I referred to as “Cat TV”.

You could sort of judge the temperature by how fluffed up the birds were.   The colder it was, the more they puffed their feathers out.   They also had a behavior that fooled me for several weeks.  I was quite distressed to see how many birds I had at my feeder that were only one legged.  I figured that the extreme cold had caused them to lose limbs to frostbite.  It wasn’t until I saw one of the critters change legs that I realized that in order to conserve body heat, they would stand on one leg and keep the other tucked up into the feathers of its belly.  They were so puffed out you really could not see that they had two perfectly functional legs.  Was I ever relieved!

In the middle of the winter these little fellows were extremely busy during the daylight hours, which were very short in duration.   At the winter solstice, we had about three hours of daylight, and the chickadees made the most of that time.   They would land on the suet block, and pack it away, eat a few seeds, and then pick up a seed and fly off with it.  Back they would come, eat, fly off with seeds.   Back and forth they would go, carrying off seeds as fast as they could.  I wondered what they were doing with them.  

The next spring, I learned what was happening to all the seeds.   I was out walking around my woods, looking at my garden site.   It was warming up, most of the snow had melted.   We had even had  a little rain.   It was still another few weeks before I could think about planting things out, the soil was still very cold.   Suddenly, off in the distant trees, amidst all the myriad shades of umber, grey, tan, white and dark green, a glint of kelly green caught my eye.   But it was not at the ends of branches, or on the twigs, where I would have expected to see green.  No, the green shining out at me came from the trunk and all the junctions of the branches of a black spruce, whose customary garb was  very dark olive green, so dark it almost seemed black.

Needless to say, I was compelled to investigate the phenomenon without delay.  I approached the tree, and it was a sight.  All up and down the trunk, in every nook and cranny available, there were sunflower seeds.  The recent rain and warmth and induced many of them to grow, and the audacious sprouts were the source of the bright green that had caught my eye. 

I realized that what I had come across was the tree where the chickadees habitually spent the long arctic nights.   All day long, they carried seeds to it, and stashed them in the cracks of the bark.  These snacks were available to them during the long hours of darkness, and were what kept them alive through the frigid night hours when the aurora borealis twisted and crackled against the starlit sky.

I admired these tiny creatures.  They had found a way to survive without hibernating or migrating.  Their cheery dee-dee-dee made the woods alive during the coldest days, their short darting flights caught the eye as they busily worked stocking their pantry.  

Chickadees show up everywhere, it seems, and I have always been fond of the cheeky little birds ever since I found the chickadee tree all dressed in sunflower sprouts. 

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