Speaking of Nature: ‘Bonk’ goes a chickadee

  • Sunflower seeds provide so much more food value than spiders that it is easy to understand why chickadees (and other winter birds) would find feeders such a valuable resource. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 1/20/2021 9:22:37 AM

It was a school day, but because of the pandemic I was working from home. The house was quiet and other than the subtle sound of my pencil scratching paper, the only noises in the house were the occasional “tinks” and “clanks” of the wood stove changing temperature. I was just about to break for lunch when a new noise caught my attention. It was the quiet “bonk” of a small bird hitting one of the windows downstairs.

Generally, these small noises don’t concern me a great deal because they are produced by mourning doves bouncing off the window glass. But this one bothered me because there were no mourning doves around at the time. Thus, even a small sound might represent trouble if a small bird made it. So, using the event as an excuse to get some lunch, I descended the steps from my loft office, crossed over to the kitchen windows that look out onto the deck and scanned the area for signs of trouble.

My eyes instantly fell upon a black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapilus) that “didn’t seem right.” Standing on the deck boards, this little bird might have been looking for a fallen seed, but what caught my attention was the rather subdued movements of this particular individual. Opening the door and stepping outside wasn’t a sufficient test of the bird’s condition because the chickadees that come to my feeder are so “friendly” that they seldom flee at my appearance and occasionally even come closer to see if I have a treat for them.

So, I carefully walked over to the little bird and had my suspicions confirmed. This must have been the bird that hit the window because it just didn’t move. I bent down, very carefully closed the fingers of my right hand underneath the Lilliputian creature and lifted it up to take a look. I saw no deformities of the head, which was a good sign, but the bird was blinking oddly and its beak was open slightly. Hoping that it was just stunned from having its “bell rung,” I brought it inside and turned on the TV. We ended up watching “Star Trek” together for about 20 minutes and I decided to name the little bird Jean-Luc.

Black-capped chickadees are miniscule birds that weigh in at about 12 grams (less than half an ounce). Because they are so small, they don’t have a “solid core” of body mass that can really protect them from the cold efficiently. As a result, their survival in winter depends on finding enough food every day to fatten up for the coming night. Their natural winter diet would consist of wild berries (especially the small, waxy berries of poison ivy plants) and spiders (or any other dormant arthropods that might be hiding in the nooks and crannies of tree bark). This sort of food may require a lot of energy to find, so one can only imagine how attractive a well-stocked birdfeeder might be.

Long and cold winter nights represent a major challenge for chickadees and they survive these nights by going into a sustained hypothermia every night. Basically, they “hibernate” every night and use up all of the fat that they managed to accumulate the previous day. Then, when they wake up, they have to put on enough fat during the day to survive hibernation the following night. In effect, the birds are in danger of starvation constantly through the winter.

Unfortunately for the little bird in my hand, the windows next to my feeders caused an incident. This could have been fatal because Kevin the Cooper’s hawk is still a regular in the yard and he would most certainly have grabbed Jean-Luc if I hadn’t picked him up first. Fortunately for the chickadee, I had the time and the ability to offer “him” a safe, warm place to recover from his collision and after about 20 minutes the bird seemed more alert and even started to struggle against confinement just a little bit.

So, I went out onto the deck and opened my hand, but the chickadee flew back toward the window and sat on the windowsill awkwardly. I picked it up again and escorted it over to the branches of a lilac bush that are just above the railing where I put out food for the birds. I placed the bird on a branch and then retreated into the house to let it finish its recovery.

It sat in the branch … awkwardly … as other birds came back to the deck for food. Cardinals, white-throated sparrows, juncos and all of the other species that normally dine at Chez Danielson were in full attendance and the chickadee looked like it was riding a mechanical bull as the branches of the lilac bush were jostled by their movements. I kept peeking out to see if the chickadee had flown and 10 minutes later the bird was gone; hopefully rested, recovered and remembering what it was like to be warm.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years, but he has never watched “Star Trek” with a chickadee until now. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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