Trying to write when your desk is next to a window is both good news and bad. Good because I get a lot of natural light on my workspace. Bad because it also means my eyes are easily distracted by movement outside the window and lately there’s been a lot of movement. Luckily, my typing skills are good enough that I don’t need to look down at the keyboard.
Birds are the obvious source of distraction and right now the black capped chickadees are the main culprits. They are one of my favorite birds. If the loon wasn’t Minnesota’s state bird, I’d be lobbying for the black capped chickadee. Maine and Massachusetts have already chosen it for their state bird. Since they are states that have been settled much longer than Minnesota it proves that people have found these little fluff balls attractive since landing on these shores.
How can you not admire such a tiny creature that willingly chooses to stay in Minnesota all year long, through miserable hot, humid summers and into bitterly cold winters and does it with seemingly so little effort and such good cheer?
The chickadees have been busy at the feeder in recent days as the temperature has moderated. But on those subzero days, especially early in the a.m. they are in constant motion from feeder to branch and back again. In order to survive our long frigid nights, these tiny dynamos must fill their bellies with as much energy food as possible. Sunflower seeds seem to be their preferred food, but if the feeder turns up empty, they move into the woods and begin to search for alternatives. They are especially fond of animal matter, such as the eggs of gypsy and coddling moths, bark beetles, plant lice, aphids and spiders. This type of food makes up seven tenths of their diet, making them a friend of the farmer and gardener. The other three tenths is plant matter like wild fruit and seeds.
You’ve probably seen a chickadee engaged in its feeding acrobatics. This involves looking over the top and end of a twig, then hanging upside down to check the underside. This fondness for animal protein means that they will appreciate any suet you put out; anything with lots of calories.
I love the way the late afternoon sun shines on the birds as they perch and nibble seeds, highlighting the tawny feathers on the sides of their bodies, just beneath the wings. I was able to observe one bird this afternoon with my binoculars as it worked on cracking a sunflower seed. I could see the wind ruffling its downy belly feathers. The bird looked twice its normal size, because it is able to lift its body feathers up, creating more air pockets. In effect, it makes a nice little down jacket.
I have also seen them shivering. This too is an adaptation to cope with cold temperatures. The shivering converts muscular energy into heat. This can only be done for a short time, because it also depletes more of their energy reserves. Still, it is hard not to feel sorry for the little birds as we watch from the comfort of our heated homes. Even though we have had a stretch of milder temperatures, subzero temps are likely to return in the next two months.
During the long dark nights, chickadees will congregate in a conifer or old hollowed out tree trunk, where they are protected from the wind and can mitigate some of the heat loss by the closeness of other bodies. Amazingly they are able to survive through sub-zero nights and be actively feeding at first light. These birds are hardy, feisty survivors. Good examples for all of us who live in the Upper Midwest.