Speaking of Nature: The tale of Picky Pete

  • I snapped this photo of Picky Pete as he paused to eat a seed that finally met his exacting standards. He actually dropped down into the long grass to retrieve this particular morsel. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 9/25/2022 4:01:07 PM
Modified: 9/25/2022 4:00:16 PM

For years now I have been regaling my readers with stories of my exploits from the Thinking Chair. This is a soon-to-be-upgraded Adirondack chair that sits at the edge of the wet meadow that sits at the bottom of a gentle hill behind my house. The Thinking Chair has been my destination for nature observations for years and in the process of spending so much time there I have created a close community of birds that have come to accept my presence among them.

I don’t know if I can identify the precise day that the birds’ acceptance of me went so far that they began to land on me, but I can definitely say that the culture of this community has been reinforced dramatically since it started. As always, it was the chickadees that got the ball rolling and at some point a curious chickadee came down and landed on me. This is always a magical moment, but there is nothing quite like that first visit from an inquisitive little creature that just wants to know more about what you are and whether you are dangerous or not.

Often, this first actual landing is preceded by a series of close passes and near misses. Chickadees might be unsure of one’s intentions, so they seem determined to force the subject. The most daring among them will land near you and contemplate you for a while. Then one might swoop past your ear just to see if it can get a rise out of you. Before a landing is actually executed there may be a few instances of a chickadee hovering above you. But eventually, curiosity compels the brave little bird to finally land and take a long, hard look at you. Nothing is more wonderful than being contemplated by a chickadee.

If you have prepared for such an occasion and you have brought food with you, then the friendly nature of your existence can be greatly cultivated. Then, the relationship only requires time. I have been going to the same place at the same time of day for years and I now have an entire community of birds who actually seem to be waiting for me when I arrive. At this point it is still only the chickadees that will land on me, but I also have titmice, song sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches and even a male cardinal that are completely at ease with my presence. They just don’t see me as any kind of threat.

What started out as only one chickadee has now turned into a small flock of 6 to 8 birds who all seem interested in using me as a feeding platform. Yet, there are clear differences among them. Some seem to be new to the game and are quite hesitant as they approach me. This makes sense because chickadees tend to fan out across the landscape in the fall and join new flocks. The more experienced resident adults show them the ropes and they gradually learn.

So it is this group of adults that I wish to focus on for the remainder of my time today. Among the older birds there is an individual that I have named “Picky Pete.” A little larger than the other birds and with a little more black on the head and throat, this bird is most easily identified by its behavior. Unlike the other chickadees, who land, grab a seed and go, Picky Pete always lingers.

There have been times when Picky Pete lands on my head and then remains there so long that I forget he is there. It doesn’t mind if I reach into my breast pocket to retrieve my notepad and pen, or if I raise my camera to my eye so that I can take photos of other birds. Picky Pete will just sit there as if my movement is nothing more than the normal movement of a branch in the wind. But there is other evidence of his motivation.

All the while he is sitting on my head a constant shower of seeds will rain down from above. Picky Pete is sorting through all of the seeds on my head to look for just the right one. If he cannot find an acceptable seed on my hat, he will fly down to my knees, where other seeds have been placed. Even more adorable in its ridiculousness is the fact that sometimes Picky Pete will fly down to my shoulders and arms where previously unacceptable seeds were tossed. On more than one occasion it is one of these previous discards that is ultimately found acceptable.

I find this sort of personal quirk to be extremely charming. To think that a bird could have such exacting standards for excellence is delightful. Thus far I have been unable to determine the exact characteristics that Picky Pete is focused on. To me, the 50 to 60 different seeds in a pile look very much the same, but to a true connoisseur like Pete there must be factors that an ignoramus such as myself simply cannot comprehend. I shall endeavor to learn what I can from the little master.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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