Sharply cold air flooded my lungs when I stepped outside this morning. A fresh dusting of snow glittered where the morning sun filtered through trees, and that same sun shone on rosy clouds in a blue sky. I took another breath. Inhale beauty. Exhale gratitude.
Crunch…crunch…crunch. With sunflower seeds cupped in my outstretched palm, I walked to a spot in between the thicket of balsam fir trees and the empty bird feeder. The trees were silent – frozen by my movement. The hyperactive hopping of a single chickadee broke the stillness. Within seconds, the whole flock was back.
During the summer, black-capped chickadees focus on their mate and their chicks. Even if I didn’t have to take my feeder down because of the bears, they would not gather like this for a group feast. By late fall, chickadee flocks are well established and ready to defend a winter feeding territory. One territory just happens to include my feeder.
Like wolf packs, chickadee flocks have alpha and beta pairs at the top of the hierarchy, other mated pairs below them, and then unmated juveniles at the bottom. Unlike wolves, the juveniles are not the offspring of pairs in the flock. Instead, their parents kicked them out of their childhood range in the hopes of spreading genetic diversity a little wider.
As I stood there, hand outstretched, I listened to the interactions of the flock. Dominant birds responded with aggressive gargles aimed at lower-ranked birds who got too close, or disputed the ownership of a seed. Researchers have found that the gargler almost always wins the fight. Shy “tseet tseets,” from hidden chickadees maintaining contact with the flock filtered through the thick boughs. Chickadee-dee-dee calls could have been greetings to friends, or warnings about the possible danger of my presence.
The whirr of wing beats also filled the air as chickadees swooped bravely over my head to the empty feeder, then on to perch on the broom handle near the door, to cling to the side of the porch pillar with needle-like toes, and then back to the safety of the fir boughs. None flew to my seed-filled hand, although I hoped very intently.
Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to eat a few more seeds? In order to maintain their normal 108-degree body temperature, chickadees must eat the caloric equivalent of 250 sunflower seeds each day. They gain up to ten percent of their body weight in fat each day, and burn it off each night to stay warm.
Maybe the chickadees weren’t hungry enough to brave my hand because they were raiding their cached food instead. Norwegian researchers found that the tit, (a chickadee relative,) caches up to 80,000 seeds in a single autumn. Unlike red squirrels, who put all their seeds in one stump and then have to defend them fiercely, chickadees spread out their seeds singly, and don’t worry about a few getting stolen.
If I were a chickadee, my biggest source of seed loss would be my own forgetfulness! Chickadees have it figured out. They use forgetfulness to make space for new memories each year. Each fall, brain neurons containing old information die, and new neurons grow with current information about seed locations, social flocks, and their habitat.
This also means that they have forgotten my past role as a harmless provider of food. My hand throbbed with cold, so I stuck it back in my mitten and walked down to the lake for a break. Those rosy clouds and that blue sky sat reflected in a section of open water, surrounded by a skim of ice.
I continued down the driveway, stepping over the leaping tracks of red squirrels, the tiny bounds of mice, and the snowed-in trail of a midnight fox. All these brave creatures share the winter world with the chickadees and me.
Scooping seeds out from the tip of my mitten where I had stored them, I tried again. Standing silently, hand outstretched, I waited. Again, the flock began swooping around me, but not landing. Then a different movement caught my eye – a vole was foraging at the base of the dead spruce.
The instant that my focus left the chickadees for the vole, I felt the spiny grip of a chickadee on my finger. Not daring to shift my gaze and scare it off, I kept my eye on the vole, and my awareness in that finger. I took a deep breath of crisp air. Inhale beauty. Exhale gratitude.
Now the spell was broken. Several more chickadees swooped down to grab seeds. In between, I was able to look down. One chickadee cocked its head and peered up at me through a shiny black eye, as if to say, “I see you. You’re ok.” That was all I wanted.
“Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”
― from Evidence, by Mary Oliver