One of my favorite birding spots has long been my mother-in-law’s place in the woods in northern Wisconsin. She started feeding birds there in 1975, right about when I started birding, and she kept her feeders filled until she moved in with us in 2012. We closed her feeders last fall, when even non-migratory birds are restless. Her birds would find alternatives quickly, but it was the end of an era for me.
In early February 2014, I drove her to a social event in her town, and while she was engaged, I spent three hours at her place. Her empty platform feeder seemed forlorn, so I filled it with sunflower seeds. I had little hope of attracting anything but stationed myself by the window, just in case.
In about five minutes, a Black-capped Chickadee appeared, grabbed a seed, and flew to a branch to eat. It repeated the process three or four times. Then, perhaps galvanized by the unexpected bonanza, it shifted into high gear. Zipping about more quickly than I’ve ever seen a chickadee move, it started caching seeds in nearby trees, seemingly intent on hiding as many as possible before its flock mates found out. Chickadees winter in flocks, but for the time being, this one was alone. It stashed well over a dozen seeds before two more chickadees appeared. They ate a few seeds and soon started squirreling them away, too.
More chickadees arrived, and then still more, until I was seeing a bewildering number. Twice I counted seven inside the feeder at the same moment. Each grabbed a seed and retreated to a secluded spot to eat, but even as some flew off, others were flying in. Trying to keep track of individuals made my head spin.
Short of putting a tiny RFID chip on each bird, chickadees are extremely difficult — maybe impossible — to count with accuracy at feeding stations. I estimated that at least 20 visited during my stay, possibly several dozen.
A Downy Woodpecker passed through, two crows watched the activity from a nearby tree, and one raven flew overhead. They were the only other birds I saw in the three hours I watched. When it was time to leave, I felt sad. I trust the resilience of chickadees. They would be retrieving cached seeds for days after the feeder was empty again, and they were perfectly capable of finding all their own food anyway, as they’d done all winter.
Brooks Atkinson once wrote that birds “live independently of us with a self-sufficiency that is almost a rebuke.” But when their paths intersect with ours, chickadees confer on us moments of grace that far surpass the value of the birdseed we confer on them. I hope my afternoon with the chickadees was at least half as entertaining and joyful for them as it was for me. — Laura Erickson
Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe. This article appeared in the June 2014 issue. Laura is a co-author of National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America and the author of Laura’s Birding Blog. In February 2014, she received the American Birding Association’s highest honor: the Roger Tory Peterson Award.
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