Little Blue

Black Capped Chickadee

I awakened as I usually do in the pre –dawn hour, walked the dogs in the dark, made coffee, fed Lily b, and was standing at the window spritzing my Norfolk Island pine as the sky lightened just enough for me to see the first chickadee appear in the apple tree. No cardinals this morning.

 As is my habit I was staring out the window lost in an early morning reverie when I saw him. A black dot in the snow. It was very cold. I ran out the door in my nightgown, rounded the corner and discovered the dot was a half frozen chickadee. Dismay washed over me – my absolutely favorite little bird… At first I thought the bird was dead but when I scooped ‘him’ up he bit me hard with his little black beak! Back in the house I examined the bird under a good light and was distressed to see a damaged wing. While holding his fragile body securely to warm him and noting the wide black bib (indicating that he might be a male*) I put my little friend on the carpet opening my hand just enough to see what was wrong. Oh no, his wing was definitely broken, and there was no way I could set it myself. I grabbed the box I kept a ready for bird emergencies and placed the chickadee on a soft bed, closing the box over his head.

After preparing him a chamber in a soft- sided bird carrier I opened the box even as he struggled to get free. Feisty. His tiny heart was beating too fast – too much trauma. Once inside the comforting dark mesh of the cage I contacted my vet – just in case. After a brief discussion we hoped that the chickadee would be able to heal the wing over time. Not the outcome I had hoped for, but I knew how fragile those tiny bones were…

Even while conversing with my vet my eyes were glued to the bird whose carrier was in my bedroom sitting on a table that overlooked the apple tree. I was delighted to see that he drank water with gusto and then hopped over to eat some seeds that I had scattered on the soft towel that was his floor. Afterwards he nestled into the fabric in a back corner. A good beginning. I hoped he was not in too much pain.


Within hours I had another worry. My little houseguest started climbing the mesh and began hopping back and forth almost frantically. He was trying to get out. I spoke to him in a low voice that seemed to calm him and then I stayed with him most of the day grateful that my dogs understood. Even Lily b, my thirty – year old dove was quiet. Recalling a recent dream in which I had seen a mysterious blue light in the snow at the edge of my forest, I named him Little Blue.

Curiously, the apple tree was filled with chickadees all day long that first day. I had quite a covey of chickadees this year and was feeding them on both sides of the house. It was unusual to see so many perched in the apple tree at once. Because chickadees pair up in the fall and spend the winter in groups I suspected Little Blue had a (future) mate that might be sitting in that tree. My little friend probably missed his companion. Oh dear.

The first night he spent with us he perched on a little hill I had created with part of the towel; now he sleeps in a bunch of fragrant White spruce branches. It’s hard to believe I have only had him for such a short time. He’s up at dawn. First he drinks water. Then he hops over to the seed banquet after which he climbs the mesh to peer out the window at his friends at the feeder. Then he starts preening his feathers. 

Each morning when I change his water he hears the zipper and positions himself on the mesh closest to where there will be soon be an opening. Smart little fellow! He is determined to get out and I am equally determined that he stay put. It’s critical that he doesn’t get a chance to do further damage to that wing. All the grooming he has been doing has made a difference. Although his wing is still not securely held against his body, it’s not all ruffled up like it was before. And he’s so active! When I kneel down to see and converse with him at close quarters he climbs the mesh inches from my face – we are definitely friends, and he clearly knows his name – how much I wish I could hold him.

One fascinating shift is the way he eats his seeds. Instead of pecking at them steadily like he did that first morning, he will take one seed, hop away to eat it and return for another, just like these birds do outdoors. It may be that due to the trauma/injury he had been lying in the snow all night and was literally starving when I rescued him. All of this, is of course, conjecture. 

Four days after he arrived a chickadee called – a single chirp –like sound – outside the window around 8AM. Little Blue jumped onto the mesh and hopped around with obvious excitement. I wondered if the bird that called might have been Little Blue’s companion. At this time of year chickadees rarely vocalize unless a predator is in the area.   

  To provide him with extra nutrition I ground up raisins and almonds and chopped up some apple to add to his sunflower seeds… At some point I will have to remove him from the carrier in order to clean the cage floor but I am going to wait to do housecleaning as long as possible for obvious reasons. I am frankly delighted that he likes to poop in his water because I change that every day!

I am prepared to keep him – if necessary – permanently. But because he is a wild bird I fervently hope his wing will heal well enough so that he can rejoin his companion and friends by early spring.

Despite their once vast range, as a species,  chickadees are remarkably homogeneous in their genetic make-up. The Black capped chickadee’s closest relative is the Mountain chickadee, another endearing avian creature. Both species hung out in the juniper in Abiquiu until last winter. Although I had four Black capped chickadees not one Mountain chickadee visited any of my feeders.

Many folks know that Climate Change and habitat loss from logging and forest fires are reducing the  chickadee’s population. Northern New Mexico is perched on the edge of extinction of both the Black capped and Mountain chickadee. In Maine we seem to be a bit more fortunate – but for how long?

My strategy is to take refuge in the present enjoying every chickadee that comes my way. Although I feel ambivalent about having a caged wild bird in the house, I am frankly fascinated by the behavior of my little boarder. I am particularly interested to find out what happens when the outdoor chickadees begin to vocalize on a regular basis. Will I be able to confirm Little Blue’s gender?

 Obviously, I love these little birds. I fed them by hand as a child and have continued this practice as an adult, especially during the summer months. I can’t imagine living anywhere without them.

*The colors and patterns are identical in males and female chickadees, but some scientists believe that larger black “bibs” are seen on male chickadees; this data is inconclusive and observers must rely on gender-specific behavior and vocalizations to determine gender in black-capped chickadees.

There are subtle differences between male and female chickadee vocalizations/calls, some which begin in late January. Chickadees have at least thirteen different and complex vocalizations.

Black Capped Chickadee



This morning after I returned from my early morning walk to the river I stood at the east window watching a few Black – Capped chickadees flying out of my adopted juniper to the bird feeder. Although there are other trees around, the thick cover provided by my arboreal friend is everyone’s favorite. I love to watch these birds delicately take one seed to eat or cache somewhere for the winter. There was so much activity around the juniper early this morning that I suspected that all the birds knew “a big wind” was coming, and were stocking up on seed early.

I tried to count the black-capped chickadees and reached the conclusion that I had about 4 – not exactly a flock. However, I am delighted to have even one pair here in Abiquiu. According to some sources there aren’t even supposed to be any in this area at all, but for three out of the four winters I have lived here I have always had a few.

Other sources say that Northern Mexico has a small population, and most remind us that Black capped chickadees are moving north because of Climate Change. Northern New Mexico is perched on the edge of Black-Capped chickadee extinction, so please enjoy these delightful little birds while we still have them. Even in Maine, those of us who are birdwatchers have been be –moaning the fact that we are seeing less and less of these iconic little birds each year. Most are moving north towards the boreal forests of Canadian Shield because there are still enough of the kinds of trees around to support healthy populations – for now.

This morning after watching the chickadees, sparrows and nuthatches flying in and out of my juniper I read some very disturbing information about junipers and sage in the Abiquiu News:

“A low-flying airplane will drop Tebuthiuron pellets*, a soil-applied herbicide that inhibits photosynthesis, on creosote bush and juniper trees. At the planned rate and timing of application, the herbicide will have minimal impact on desirable grasses and forbs. Because the herbicide is applied in pellet form, it will not drift from the treated areas (simply not true). When the pellets dissolve with favorable precipitation, (how do they know we will get it?) they are absorbed into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet and taken up by the target plants root system, eventually reducing the sagebrush density. The pellets will not be dropped near waterways or on slopes greater than 10%. Tebuthiuron has been used to thin many bush species including creosote bush and juniper trees since the 1980s, and the benefits of its application are well documented.” (By whom, and what was their agenda?)


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Soil Conservation folks believe that the objective of the treatments is to improve plant species diversity, which will benefit wildlife, rangeland and watershed health by reducing the density of sagebrush, and result in an increase of native grasses, forbs and other herbaceous vegetation.”


Benefit Wildlife? I was aghast reading this information because it neglects to mention that the junipers and sages provide necessary cover/food for so many birds in the Southwest, or that junipers and sage are better adapted to the drying conditions that are associated with Climate Change in the Southwest.


Truly, one hand does not know what the other is doing.


But to return to chickadees…


In Maine, perhaps because I live in a mixed confider and deciduous forest chickadees visit my feeders all summer. However, I happen to know that their summer diet also relies heavily on insects (spiders, caterpillars, snails etc) and berries. As some are aware, chickadees also love to eat fat. Just yesterday I put out my first suet seed cake. During the winter, chickadees also feast on insect pupae.

Pairs typically form in fall and remain together as part of winter flock. Flocks break up in late winter, and both male and females defend their nesting territory. During courtship and afterwards the males feed the females. Less frequently these days nest sites are found in the holes of trees. Chickadees like to line their nests with mosses or animal hair. In Maine some use tufts of hair (from my brush) that I leave in a little basket in a nearby juniper. I still have many woodpecker excavated holes because I allow all trees to live out their natural lives on my property, but some of my chickadees also use nest boxes.

The literature is very confusing when it comes to migration. Some sources suggest that chickadees are permanent residents but that they also move south in fall and winter (!). I believe that some are permanent residents, at least in Maine, but for reasons that are unknown others do migrate. Another bird mystery. Those that do stay in northern climates must be able to withstand little sun and very cold temperatures during the winter. These chickadees are able to lower their body temperature at night to enter regulated hypothermia, which allows them to conserve energy. Chickadees also have exceptional spatial memory, which allows them to re locate cached food.

Despite its once vast range, as a species the chickadees are remarkably homogeneous in their genetic make-up. The Black capped chickadee’s closest relative is the Mountain chickadee, another endearing avian creature. Although I have been on the lookout I have yet to see one in Abiquiu this fall.


* Some information on Tebuthiuron

(Wikipedia/ Cornell are sources)

Tebuthiuron is a “non -selective broad spectrum” herbicide (read: it kills a lot of living things).

The Environmental Protection Agency considers this herbicide to have “great potential for groundwater contamination, due to its high water solubility, low absorption to soil particles, and high persistence in soil.”

In Europe this herbicide has been banned since 2002.

Weeds that are controlled by tebuthiuron include alfalfa, bluegrasses, chickweed, clover, dock, goldenrod, mullein, etc.

My commentary: all these plants are beneficial to bees and other insects and they provide food for birds and animals.


Skin, eye or clothing contact with the herbicide should be avoided. This herbicide is classified as moderately poisonous. Symptoms of Tebuthiuron poisoning in rodents include lack of energy, loss of appetite, muscular incoordination and death. Vomiting occurred in cats and dogs.

Who benefits? Ranchers and big business at everyone’s expense.