My article on hand-feeding chickadees for Harrisburg. Internet Explorer wouldn’t let me post yesterday….so it goes.
Colored spots of fluff with the hearts of lions and the courage of giants.Chickadees.
Brave, adventurous, curious, daring; small bodies and big attitudes; and simply delightful.
The black-capped chickadee has fascinated people as long as birds and people have shared the outdoors.
Its distinctive black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray back, wings and tail and whitish underside with buffy sides may first attract people’s notice.
What keeps their attention is the chickadee’s habit of investigating and examining closely everything, especially people, in its home territory.
And what makes them truly unforgettable is their sheer daring, an ounce of feathers with the mindset of an amiable dinosaur, their devil-may care bravado and sheer fun: They are happy to be alive and proud of it.
As naturalist and author Tom Brown Jr. so presciently wrote, “We learned to be patient observers like the owl. We learned cleverness from the crow, and courage from the jay, who will attack an owl ten times its size to drive it off its territory. But above all of them ranked the chickadee because of its indomitable spirit.”
I first became enamored of chickadees when, soon after I got my master’s degree in journalism from Penn State, I made a giant leap backward on the normal career track and became a bartender at the Phyrst (pronounced first), one of State College’s true cheap beer and peanut ambience bars.
I was living in a one-room cabin at Whipple’s Dam State Park ($45 a month) and installed a tray feeder outside one of my windows.
I filled it with mixed seed and the usual suspects of titmice, juncos and sparrows showed up.
When the chickadees found it they made their presence known: When they had eaten all the black oil sunflower seeds they actually started pecking on my window to get my attention: Hey, buddy, let’s get the good stuff out here and now!
To check that this was the fact I put a whole cup of sunflower seeds out and the pecking stopped. But as soon as the seeds were gone, the pecking started again: They’d hover in mid-air – which they are not able to do, learned folk say – and tap, tap, tap with their sturdy little beaks.
I remember laughing out loud in delight and then heading to the hardware store for a 25-pound bag of sunflower seed to keep them happy all winter.
My love affair with these little guys – a group is called a banditry of chickadees.; almost as good as a murder of crows, a congress of owls or a convocation of eagles – resumed after decades away, in Florida, upstate New York, northern New Jersey and other strange climes.
Buying a house. 0.7 of a mile from where I grew up, I had the free time and ability to crank up my love of nature and time spent afield, trying to slightly lift nature’s mysterious skirts.
My center of operations became Frances Slocum State Park, as it apparently did for the local chickadees, so a rendezvous was inevitable.
Some kind soul regularly patrolled the lake’s perimeter and left a scoop of sunflower seeds on top of every other wooden guard rail and would do this regularly all winter long, bless his generous soul.
Always one to take advantage of anyone’s kindness, I knew this regular feeding would saddle the banditry with a serious sunflower Jones, and an aching emptiness when the guard rails stood barren, between visits.
An emptiness I was only too happy to fill.
So armed with a Ziploc bag of sunflower seeds I went to the first bramble patch — where they were apparently having a loud family feud — filled my hand with seed and stuck it out.
A moment of silence. Then the aerial dance began as they started darting around, up, down, sideways, trying to figure out why the seeds weren’t on the guardrails where they were supposed to be and instead were in what could be a pink trap.
This went on for a couple of minutes and just as I was about to move, one brave little lad zoomed over, clasped a finger, grabbed a seed, let out a cry and took off.
It was magic. The strength of his little claws, the feeling of a living thing crossing an invisible barrier to accept my offer, the wonder of the moment. I was beyond moved.
What a gift, what a treasure was handed me. I still thrill thinking about that first brave little soul.
After that, as they got more and more used to me, more would come rocketing over to get the seeds, at times two almost colliding in mid-air to get there first.
Not all, of course, not even most, but the bravest, the least fearful would come back again and again, and every time I would feel such an intense joy, a happiness that only the unexpected grace of the natural world can provide.
And feeding time is just about here again. Time to go hang with the bandits, and feel that rush when a brave little bundle of improbability takes a chance and accepts what I offer.
I may feed their little tummies but they return that a thousand-fold by filling my soul with their priceless food of a gift magically offered and gratefully accepted.
A divine gift freely given. As Emily Dickinson said, “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”