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.