As much as we love to watch birds enjoying the bounty at our feeders, there may come a day when we forget to glance out the window at them. Ennui sets in, especially in winter, after weeks of seeing the same woodpeckers and nuthatches and finches every day.
For times like these, when we need something to perk up our back-yard bird-watching experience, may I suggest what might be called the Chickadee Challenge? This concept comes from Bob Holtz, a dedicated bird watcher, field trip leader, naturalist and all-around involved-with-birds person. Retired now after teaching college-level biology for more than three decades, Bob came up with a great way to rivet his already intense interest in birds: He chose a common bird, seen in most back yards — the black-capped chickadee — and set himself the challenge of recording a sighting of a chickadee every day of the year.
Sounds simple enough, but even an expert birder like Holtz encountered days without ’dees, requiring him to wipe the slate clean and start over. But then he got a streak going that lasted for 675 days. He wrote about it on one of the electronic bulletin boards for birders, lamenting that his streak ended on Thanksgiving Day, when he spent the entire day indoors with family.
A ’dee a day
“What a great idea,” I thought when I read Holtz’s post, because this seems to be something nearly everyone can do. Chickadees are common, they visit feeders often and they’re a favorite bird for many of us. Calling it the “Chickadee Challenge,” I decided to start my own list right away.
As things turned out, it sometimes was a challenge: I’d have eight days in a row with sightings of a chickadee at a feeder or in trees along my regular walking route, but then a day of chickadee scarcity. It was tough to string two weeks’ worth of days together.
The spates of terribly cold days this winter didn’t help. I’d watch our feeders shortly after sunup, getting more and more nervous as none of the local flock of five chickadees appeared, then would have to abandon the wait and head for the office. If no ’dees appeared at lunchtime, the pressure would mount. And if I missed them in the late afternoon, it meant starting over.
I was mystified by the lack of the small birds on very cold mornings: The colder it gets, the more birds need to eat, to replace vital body fat, and this is especially true after long winter nights. But then I recalled that chickadees are known for their habit of carrying away some food in late afternoon to store in their overnight sleeping spot, often a hole in a tree or an empty nest box. Aha, that’s what they were up to, having breakfast in bed, so to speak.
If only I’d heard about the Chickadee Challenge 10 years ago, when a nutty little ’dee appeared every single evening about an hour before dark. It noisily announced its presence with a series of “da-dee, da-dee, da-dees,” snatched some sunflower bits from a feeder, then headed in to spend the night in a hole in a tree right near the back door. We were guaranteed a sighting every day, as the little bird arrived a minute or two later each afternoon as the days got longer, only disappearing in early spring, when it became time to find a mate and start a nest.
Holtz says he had some panicky moments during his long run. On some days, if he hadn’t seen a chickadee by late afternoon, he’d take a walk through a nearby park or visit a nearby nature center to watch its busy feeders.
It gets into your blood, this need to record a single small, black-and-white bird each day. You can make up your own rules, such as not counting the days when you’re away on business or vacation, and deciding whether hearing a ’dee is as good as seeing.
All this watching may cut into your productivity, as it did for me. You’ll find yourself pledging, “just 5 more minutes,” at the window, but this can easily stretch into a half hour. But even without chickadees, there’ll be sights that make it all worthwhile, possibly a pair of nuthatches, heads down, feeding on opposite sides of a suet block, or downy woodpeckers sparring for space at the peanut feeders, or all the birds dashing for cover as a hawk shadow glides across the yard.
Give it a try; chickadees are around every day of the year. They’re engaging little sprites, seeming to bring a sense of fun to the everyday challenges of making a living outdoors. All we have to do is locate one before the sun sets.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.