Speaking of Nature: Chickadees that I used to know

  • The latest arrival, Huxley, is a daily visitor to my feeders and is easy to spot from a distance. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • Luc, who was quite dashing, showed up in January of 2017. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON


Monday, January 29, 2018

I’ve been watching birds for most of my life, but I suppose I didn’t become a “birder” until I hit my 20s. It was then that the world of birds really opened up to me and I finally understood just how many different species there are to look for. As a kid, I was familiar with the charismatic species that might be described at the “starter set.” Species like blue jays, cardinals, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, mallards and great horned owls would all be members of this group.

Some of these birds were the charismatic representatives of their groups, while others were just common at bird feeders. Some you find plastered on mugs, calendars and other sorts of consumer goods while others I could actually see in the flesh. One species, the black-capped chickadee, was a member of both these groups. Easily attracted to bird feeders, the chickadee is also an iconic bird of winter that is regularly featured on Christmas cards, calendars and all sorts of consumer goods. In Massachusetts, it’s our state bird for crying out loud.

What makes a bird like the chickadee so interesting is the fact that its ubiquity can make it invisible; we see the bird so often that we sort of stop looking at it. This gives the species a sort of permanence in our minds. One might look out the window and see a chickadee at the feeder and think, “there’s the chickadee,” as if it’s the same chickadee you’ve been seeing all your life.

This is an easy issue to explain. Chickadees are small birds that don’t show any difference in plumage between the sexes. They are similar enough that a quick cursory glance will reveal nothing different between one chickadee and the next. I certainly didn’t notice anything that could help me differentiate between one individual and another for the first 20 years of my birding “career,” but in the last 10 years I have started to see more because I have started paying much closer attention.

Some of the differences between individuals are extremely subtle. On many occasions, I have been struck by the size of a particular bird. Once in a while, a “giant” chickadee appears and just as infrequently I will see a “puny” chickadee. The problem is that the birds are so similar in appearance, and so free in their movements around the landscape, that they are seen once or twice and then are gone. Rarely does a recognizable bird linger for any length of time.

So, in the past 10 years I have only come up with 4 birds that I could easily recognize from the crowd, and that I saw often enough to name. These are the chickadees I have known, and the first will be familiar to anyone who has been a longtime reader of my column.

Lionel was a chickadee that I first noticed back in 2011. I must immediately state that I have no proof of any kind to support the idea that Lionel was a male. In fact, it is true that half of all chickadees are female, but for some reason, I think of male names when naming chickadees. In contrast, brown creepers are always girls in my head. I don’t know why.

Anyway, Lionel was recognizable for obvious reasons. He was suffering from a severe beak deformity that may have been caused by a viral infection. How he was able to eat anything was an astonishing mystery to me, but he became a regular at my feeder during the winter of 2010-11. Lionel became something of a celebrity when I wrote a story about him in January of 2011. By April, he had disappeared.

For the next 5 years there weren’t many chickadees that stood out from the crowd, but in April of 2016 I started to notice a chickadee that had something wrong with his leg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but I became determined to solve this mystery, and eventually picked up my binoculars and took a closer look. It turned out that this bird was missing the front toes on one foot. Once I noticed this particular feature, it was impossible not to see the bird every time he appeared at my feeders. I named him “Hephaestus” after the deformed child of Hera, who served as the blacksmith for Olympus.

In January of 2017, I began to notice the regular appearance of a chickadee that had a beautiful case of leucism. This occurs when some of the pigmentation of an animal is lost in certain places, producing areas of white where there would otherwise be a different color. This bird was so flashy that I decided to call him Luc. In my mind, this was a nod to the condition (pronounced luke-ism), and as an homage to the charismatic captain of the Enterprise — Jean Luc Picard. No judgements, please.

This winter, a new bird has appeared with an extra patch of black on the left side of his face. There are only a couple feathers involved in this particular departure from the standard chickadee plumage, but the effect is so pronounced that I can spot this particular bird from 50 feet away. I have named this bird Huxley after the dedicated defender of Charles Darwin, who also happened to have enormous sideburns. When I do my bird counts, I will only record the maximum number of individuals that I can see at any given moment, but Huxley is so recognizable that I will add him to the total whenever he shows up.

At the moment, Huxley is the only one of the four chickadees I have named that still comes to my feeders. He is here every day, and I hope that he will buck the trend of disappearing in the springtime and stay for a while. I would be very interested to see if the trait is passed on to offspring. A flock of chickadees with sideburns would be something to see!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. 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 go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.