Chickadees, plain and simple, are engaging, energetic and delightful little birds. These venturesome little sprites seem to go about the serious business of making a living each day with a certain joie de vivre.
Stories of their derring-do and seeming sheer nuttiness are legion, so I asked a number of known chickadee fans to share their favorite 'dee stories:
Ellen Cashman of Ely, Minn., takes her bird feeders down before spring each year to avoid having them destroyed by hungry bears, then hangs them again each fall. "It's amazing how chickadees remember things from year to year. I came out with their feeder the other day and they immediately began to appear. As I was raising it up toward the hook, some chickadees were already landing on the pegs, and one even grazed the top of my head as it raced in. If the feeder gets low on seed, sometimes they'll land on the window ledge and peer into my office."
Drowning in sugar
Beth Siverhus of Warroad, Minn., puts out a dish of grape jelly each spring for migrating orioles, warblers and catbirds, then keeps an eye on it from the kitchen window. "One day the jelly seemed to be wiggling, so I cautiously approached the 'live' dish and was surprised to find an extremely agitated chickadee 'glued' in the jelly. I gently pried the sticky little bird out and brought it into the house to give it a warm bath in the bathroom sink. The 'dee spent a few hours drying out and preening in the bathroom until it was dry, then I retrieved it from its perch in the hanging spider plant and let it go outside. They do have a sweet tooth, as I noticed this summer around the hummingbird feeder."
Comfort and joy
Ellen Lowery of White Bear Lake felt a connection to a curious chickadee some years back: "I was sitting on my deck, recovering from chemotherapy, when a chickadee landed on my hat and peeked down over the brim to inspect me. This cheered me up and seemed a good omen."
Block that shot
Carrol Henderson, DNR Nongame Wildlife Program supervisor, fondly remembers his late friend John Thompson and his deer-hunting property: "John would place small feeders on the branches at his tree stand and enjoyed the chickadees, nuthatches and other birds that visited him while he sat and waited. On one occasion, just as a nice buck entered the meadow below his stand, a chickadee landed on his gun barrel and blocked the view through his telescopic sight. Score one for the deer, one for the chickadee and no venison for John." (Thompson ended up donating that 160 acres to the DNR, and it's now part of a wildlife management area in northeastern Minnesota, "where it will benefit both deer and chickadees for many years to come," Henderson notes.)
A survivor's tale
Laura Erickson of Duluth, noted naturalist and author of many books about birds: "My favorite story is about a chickadee I first noticed in the winter of 2013-14, with a deformed bill and missing front toes. He clearly faced difficulties in getting food that other chickadees didn't, but he had two advantages over them. He trained a human to find food for him, and give it to him whenever he flew to her window. And he was trusting enough to remain in my hand long enough to grab several mealworms with every trip. I was thrilled to help him get through the winter by hand-feeding him. The overgrown part of his bill broke off and a year later he attracted a mate and nested in a snag in my neighbor's yard. It felt like a huge gift to be able to witness some of the chicks leaving their nest on fledge day."
A bird in hand
Michael Ruzich of Ely, Minn., feeds chickadees from his outstretched hand: "I go out with my dogs every morning, put sunflower seeds in each hand, and hold them out. At first there were only two or three brave individuals, but now that it's a daily ritual, they're almost flying into each other to get to my hands, and many wait nearby in the trees for a turn. Some even land on my hat. They don't mind my older dog but if the German shepherd is around, they stick to the trees."
Karen Cramer of Oakdale: "One time, during a heat wave on a day with a heat index over 100, I heard a chickadee squealing — yes, squealing! I ran to the door nearest my birdbath, thinking the bird was in distress and might need rescuing from a predator. Imagine my surprise to find the chickadee splashing in the water of the birdbath, flicking water all over and apparently thoroughly enjoying its bath. I really think the little bird was in ecstasy at finding a wet place to drink and cool down on a very hot day."
A carnivorous side
Don Severson of Ettrick, Wis., frequent contributor of photos to this page: "One of my favorite stories occurred while I was sitting in a brush blind with bow in hand and an arrow nocked. A chickadee flew in and lit on the arrow, then flew to different parts of the bow and my hand while checking things out. He was mere inches from my face, and I figured he was scolding me for hunting deer, so I promised him I'd only try for large bucks. Another time I'd field-dressed a buck and a chickadee landed on the remains and started eating. It gave out some chickadee chatter and three or four more came in to eat."
Sharon Shinomiya of St. Paul maintains a nest box in her backyard and chickadees have been raising their families inside: "I love to walk by the nest box and hear the little ones 'dee-dee-deeing' in there."
Clay Christensen, known as the Birdman of Lauderdale, recalls a field trip to Pig's Eye Island Heron Rookery, just south of St. Paul: "We walked beneath the trees, trying to view the herons in their nests at the top. They keep their nests clean by defecating over the edge, so we were wearing broad-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts. Several of us noted a small bird flying in and out of a hole in one of the trees. Since the bird was uniformly grayish-white with no distinguishing field marks, we couldn't figure out what it was. Our guide took one look and called out 'chickadee,' but as I pointed out, it didn't look like a chickadee at all. 'It's been flying through heron poop all day,' he said."
There must be as many chickadee stories as there are chickadees, so keep an eye out for a small black, white and charcoal bird doing something fascinating, or charming or inexplicable. They can't help it — it's in their DNA.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.