Chickadees are rascals.
That’s what Krista Meyer tells me as we walk down a trail at Fridley’s Springbrook Nature Center. They’re fast, they’re hyperactive and they’re escape artists.
We’re checking a trap route as a part of the center’s monthly bird banding event, a tradition at the park since 1988.
As we approach a shoebox-size live trap at a designated spot in the park, we see a little black-capped chickadee bouncing around inside. Meyer gives me a sly look. “Do you want to get it out?”
Should an adult human be afraid of something that weighs a half-ounce? I’m about to find out.
Meyer removes the trap from its stand and sets it on the ground. I take the pint-size pillowcase she offers me and drape it over the trapdoor, just as I watched her do with other chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. “They won’t realize the door is open if you do that,” she says.
I stick in my hand. Even though the bird is confined to an area not much larger than my hand, it manages to escape every grasp. Then I catch it. And then it bites me. And then it bites again but not enough to break skin and not enough to lose my grip.
I put my hand inside the pillowcase and hold the chickadee against my body, just like Meyer did. As I remove my hand, the chickadee gives one more chomp. Rascal. Good thing it’s cute.
Born out of a tornado
Meyer writes the location and time on a card and we head back to the interpretive center, where the bird will be weighed, measured and examined by volunteer Ron Refsnider. Refsnider, of Coon Rapids, is a federally licensed bird bander and helped start Springbrook’s banding program in May 1988. It’s been a monthly happening ever since.
Siah St. Clair, who retired last April as the nature center’s director, remembers the day he met Refsnider. A tornado had come through Fridley and lingered in the park for 16 minutes. Thousands of trees went down, reconfiguring habitats and the feel of the park.
Refsnider approached St. Clair and suggested monitoring birds to record the park’s regeneration. St. Clair, who had memories of banding birds as a youth with his dad, agreed.
They went through the park and determined 12 locations to collect birds — and those stations are still used today. This consistency and protocol have resulted in one of the best bird databases in the Midwest, St. Clair says. The database includes more than 18,000 captures. One of the chickadees we captured at March’s bird-banding event was collected for the 27th time. The record is a chickadee collected 48 times over an eight-year period.
Schoolchildren gather around a table as Refsnider pull each bird from its bag. Educating new generations of nature lovers is important to this program. Refsnider calmly explains what he’s doing while making his measurements.
Holding a downy woodpecker in his hand, Refsnider talks about the bird’s tongue. He speaks loud enough for everyone to hear, but he’s really focused on the kids. He opens the bird’s mouth and pulls out a long tongue. It looks like a little kid pulling and stretching on a mouthful of bubble gum.
“She can reach this tongue into a hole and probe for insects,” Refsnider tells the children.
“Like a frog?” an elementary student asks.
“Kind of, but it’s not sticky. It has a barb on the end, like a fishhook,” answers Refsnider.
When finished, Refsnider hands the bird to another volunteer for release. At this point, the center’s volunteers like to give quick lessons on holding the bird to one of the kids — or a curious adult — before handing it off. As the child slowly releases grip, the bird flies away and disappears from sight.
“From the beginning, I wanted to make this an educational opportunity and make it interpretive,” St. Clair says of the monthly event. “I can release a bird, and it’s one of thousands I’ve let go. But for a kid, this is a lifetime experience.”
Seeing, touching, counting
Meyer signals to me. It’s time to go check the traps again.
We end up doing five rounds, collecting 12 birds. She does her rounds about every half-hour — more often in extreme temperatures.
Meyer started volunteering at the bandings four years ago, accompanying her sister who was logging volunteer hours to become a master naturalist. Now, the sisters are back nearly every month to help out.
There’s a cast of regular volunteers who willingly share their knowledge and expertise, and welcome visitors to take part in all aspects of the day.
But they won’t let you take a cardinal out of a trap (they’re aggressive) or to extricate a chickadee from one of the barely-see-it misting nets set up in the summer (they get so tangled that seasoned volunteers use toothpicks to remove the net).
If the tornado of 1987 was a defining moment in the park’s ecology, the winter of 2014 brings another major shift. Over the winter, the park underwent a major purge of invasive plants, particularly buckthorn. What had been dense and tall undergrowth is now gone. Refsnider is curious to see how this will affect both the number of birds caught and the variety of species.
At last month’s event, we collected 36 birds including black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, cardinals, a tree sparrow and a song sparrow. Both sparrows were migrating.
More will appear as migration continues in April and May.
At Sunday’s banding, volunteers expect their traps and nets will capture various sparrows — such as the meatball-like fox sparrow — eastern phoebes and yellow-rumped warblers. And perhaps a certain chickadee will be caught for the 28th time.
Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.