chickadee memories

image credit: pixabay

Inside their skulls, the sophistication of the neural capacity of black-capped chickadees increases in autumn. The part of the brain that stores spatial information gets larger and more complex, allowing the birds to remember the locations of the seeds and insects that they cache under bark and in clusters of lichen. The superior memory of the birds that I hear in the tips of the fir tree is a neuronal preparation for the hungry days of late autumn and winter. The seat of spatial memory in the brains of chickadees that live in these northern forests is particularly voluminous and densely wired. Natural selection has worked winter into the birds’ heads, molding the brains so that chickadees can survive even when food is scarce. Chickadee memories also live within societal relationships. The birds are keen observers of their flockmates. If one bird should happen on a novel way of finding or processing food, others will learn from what they see. Once acquired, the memory no longer depends on the life of any individual. The memory passes through the generations, living in the social network.
~ David George Haskell
(The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors)

Chickadees were probably the first birds I became aware of when I was a little girl. They frequented my mother’s birdfeeder which was right outside our dining room window. (Our tiny Cape Cod style house didn’t have a breakfast room or eat-in kitchen.) I still remember eating my breakfast at the table in the winter and the cold blast of air that made me shiver when Mom opened the window to spread more seeds out onto the protected platform.

I remember playing out in the snowy winter woods with the chickadee fee-bee song playing in the background. And the well known chickadee-dee-dee alarm call. My father taught me to recognize their warning call, which I often hear out of the blue on our walks in the woods these days. My guess is we might be entering someone’s territory so we respectfully move on quickly.

10.25.15 ~ woodpecker
photo by Tim

For many winters now we’ve been hanging a suet feeder on our condo balcony to attract the woodpeckers I also love. Chickadees hang around and glean the seeds that fall out of the suet while the woodpeckers are feeding. Unfortunately starlings have figured out how to hang onto the suet feeder and they wreak havoc with their large numbers. Why can’t they come one or two at a time like the woodpeckers and chickadees? We also welcome a fair number of titmice, nuthatches and juncos.

Every winter our neighbor complains that the birds poop on his balcony. For this winter I had planned to not put out the suet feeder in the interest of being neighborly but, unbeknownst to me, my thoughtful husband bought a few months worth of suet cakes he found on sale. A woodpecker already came by the other day and was hanging onto the sliding glass door screen, inquiring within about the missing feeder, no doubt. And the chickadees have also been checking out the balcony, it seems to be much earlier than usual this year. I used to put the feeder out mid-October, after Columbus Day. But the fall colors have arrived two weeks early; perhaps the birds are ahead of schedule, too.

Because our neighbor goes out on his balcony to smoke a cigar and the unpleasant fumes come into our unit even when the windows are shut, we’ve mostly ignored his complaints about our bird feeding. Tit for tat. I have a funny feeling my resolve to not feed the birds this winter is crumbling. Watching them brings me so much joy in the winter! Maybe just one more winter, since we are in quarantine? I’m going around in circles weighing the pros and cons… I have to decide now!!!

Wish the bird feeding quandary was the worst of my worries. Connecticut College now has 24 students in quarantine, a cluster of 4 positive cases and their friends. One of the students was in my sister’s class a week ago. All her classes are outdoors and all her students are wearing masks, still, I worry about her safety. It’s a grim feeling, the virus keeps coming closer and closer…

And now our reckless president has tested positive for COVID-19.

32 thoughts on “chickadee memories”

    1. Both my parents were avid birdwatchers and my mother kept a birding life list in the back of her field guide. Our family vacations were all birdwatching camping and canoeing trips. I didn’t think I was that interested in birds until well into adulthood. 🙂

  1. You are the second blogger I’ve read who has been struggling with this issue–whether to continue feeding birds because of neighbor’s issues. Have never thought about this before! Seems like–if they bring you pleasure–you must keep feeding them. But I like that you are thinking about the larger scenario and struggling with the ethics. We don’t feed birds during the summer but have decided to put up our bird feeder this weekend. Soon to see a lot of chickadees, I am sure!

    1. Living out in the woods as you do I’m sure feeding your birds wouldn’t affect your neighbors. I grew up in the woods and come to think of it, my mother’s birdfeeder didn’t attract the large groups of starlings and sparrows that mine seems to attract here in our little city. Even though there is a nature preserve behind our complex. I miss the chickadees and other little sweethearts but have to admit they do get crowded out by the big gangs. Please take some pictures of your chickadees for me!

      Do you remember when I wrote a haiku to go with one of your chickadee pics?

  2. On balance there are many reasons it is better to not feed them, but once you have begun, you really must continue for now they are counting on you. I would encourage all who are thinking of starting to feed birds to do some research first. Those marvelous brains will de-evolve, for one thing, if everyone provides an easy meal. It throws population balances out of whack, as well, and encourages non native birds who aggressively destroy nests of native birds like chickadees. Sorry to preach! I do understand the desire to have these delightful creatures close where you can see them, especially in these scary times.

    1. Thank you for preaching, Melissa! You helped me decide to not feed the birds this winter, or ever again, at least while we’re living here in this little city. I can see how my suet feeder has attracted the aggressive non-native starlings and how this is upsetting the natural balance. And now I have a better reason to not feed them than wanting to placate my neighbor. Perhaps this will motivate me to get outside and walk in the woods more often this winter so I can enjoy the birds in their natural dwelling places. When my father lost his mobility and his short-term memory, we spent many happy hours watching the birds from inside his house. Sometimes I think I’m trying to hold onto those memories here, but it really isn’t possible. Time to make new memories…

      1. After I wrote that I felt so bad for preaching that I wished I could retract it. I have similar memories with my dad before he died~ isn’t it hard to let go of them?
        You are so very gracious. I wish you joy in creating new memories out in the woods, and may you see lots of beautiful birds!

        1. Thank you, Melissa! No need to feel bad, my friend! It IS hard to let go of bittersweet memories ~ I was sorry my father had to suffer so much, but happy for the time it gave us together. It was similar to living now with this pandemic, so scary but also so many new blessings coming at the same time.

  3. Loved all your information about the chickadee. I think they are some of my favorite birds. Other than the hummingbirds we seldom feed the birds. They get along without human help so unless the ground is covered with snow we do not put out feeders. If the snow remains for a long time we do feed the birds.

    1. Hi Peggy, welcome to my blog! Chickadees are one of my favorite songbirds, too. Thanks for sharing what you do about feeding wild birds in the winter. Admittedly, things were getting out of hand here with the starling and sparrow invasions so I’m feeling more settled about not putting out the suet feeder this winter.

  4. Oh my goodness, aren’t chickadees cute! I had no idea. 🙂
    Kathy often mentions hearing a chickadee’s song, so I’ve heard of them before. What a treat it is to see one though! And please keep feeding them. Can you reposition the feeder so the birds don’t make a mess on your neighbours balcony?

    1. Yes, they are so very adorable! I’ve just learned from looking at a range map that black-capped chickadees (there are several species of chickadees) don’t migrate and their range is the northern half of the United States and the lower half of Canada. I’ve so enjoyed the pictures of Kathy’s black-capped chickadees from Michigan over the years. 🙂

  5. We have lots of chickadees here in NC, mostly Carolina chickadee. I think tit for tat is fair, but I’m biased. I can’t stand the smell of cigar smoke. There’s lots to be worried about these days. The news cycle changes at breakneck speed. At least we have birds. Stay well.

    1. Hi Cheryl, welcome to my blog! The Carolina and black-capped chickadees look almost identical but they sound different and have different ranges. Amazing! (I was just listening on the All About Birds website…) Now I know the chickadees I see when visiting my daughter in North Carolina are different and why I never heard them singing. Well, I probably heard them but didn’t know it was them. 🙂 Yes, birds are wonderful distractions from our worries. May you stay well, too.

  6. This bird’s brain changes sizes to make room for more knowledge? That’s fascinating. We used to put out birdseed in the winter for the cardinals and other birds, but squirrels and raccoons stole it so we stopped. As for your neighbor, he shouldn’t be smoking a cigar. You’re doing him a favor, keeping him from doing so! 😉

    1. Not just adorable but they’re smart little things, too! To stay put here all year, through the steamy summers and frozen winters — amazing. We used to put out peanuts for the blue jays and squirrels, much to the delight of our granddaughter, but we had to stop, too. Crazy how fast things can get out of hand! Since she won’t be visiting us this winter due to our quarantine it will be a good time to quit all feedings and restore the natural order around here. Maybe by the time she can visit again she will have forgotten about Grammy’s birds and Grandpa’s squirrels. 🙂

  7. I think you had no choice but to stop feeding, to stave off the starlings and sparrows. An alternative to feeders could be to plant bushes with berries and other things birds like, though that might also be problematic. Surely someone who lives in the woods can use all that discount suet that Tim found. Have you compared your mother’s life list to yours? Were bird sightings 50 or so years ago different than now?

    1. We do have the arborvitae trees behind us with their berries (seeds?). See the next post for the pictures of the pine siskins they attracted! 🙂 The suet will be going to my sister and brother-in-law, who still live in our parents’ little house in the woods, and still feed the birds. I’ve been thinking of sharing my mother’s life list on this blog somehow, perhaps adding some pictures of the different species. Stay tuned!

  8. Hi Barbara – I’m having trouble again posting through Reader (same with another blogger); I hope you get this comment. I love Chickadees – such a delightful little bird and so darn cute. We had pet birds growing up (parakeets, then later we had canaries) and they always remind me of our pets. There is a wonderful photographer on Twitter and she has a website as well – have I ever shared Jocelyn Anderson’s sites with you? She goes to one of the Metroparks (not near me) and in that venue, birds will feed from your hand. She takes videos with her iPhone in slow motion and gets lots of Chickadees, Nuthhatches, Woodpeckers and more, all alighting on her hand for seeds. I follow the weather, some news and a few nature sites on Twitter. I never miss Jocelyn’s daily posts. Here is her photo site:

    1. Jocelyn Anderson’s site is very lovely — I love her owls. I wonder if I will ever get a picture of an owl… I almost did, once, but it flew away just as I found him in the viewfinder. Grrrr… It would be the thrill of a lifetime if a chickadee would consent to eat from my hand! My sister had a canary when we were growing up. Not sure why I didn’t have one, but I remember we both had gerbils which we allowed to run under the eaves between our bedrooms. I don’t have a Twitter account — it’s all I can do to keep up with blogging and a little bit of Facebook.

      1. I knew you would like Jocelyn Anderson’s site Barbara. Funny, I have also wanted to get a picture of an owl and bemoaned it in my blog. The only picture I got was a rehabbed owl at one of the metroparks and it sat in the corner of its cage in the dark. We had a snowy owl that kept getting sighted in downtown Detroit a few years ago and also was spotted near Lake Erie Metropark so I went out that way, but no luck.

        I used to blog on before they changed their interface and the gallery-style photos which did not always work with my posts, began having issues after they changed their blogging platform and my photos were getting cut-up, so I left. I just would copy-and-paste my narrative but I had to convert my posts to fit into their format – it took forever. We had a on Facebook – a nice group of bloggers who blogged at various Patches across the U.S. One of them was the “Community Engagement Specialist” who interacted with us – she asked if we’d follow her on Twitter as she wanted to reach 1,000 followers, so I did. I follow the trending stories in the news and the weather mostly. I also follow three meteorologists mostly for walking and also because they give up-to-the-minute Tweets when we have severe weather. I have a weather radio but no cable TV and if it’s a bad storm brewing, I follow along on Twitter to get reports on to keep safe. But I do follow Jocelyn there and she posts videos of her feeding the birds there, on her website and on YouTube. I would like that to happen to me too.

        1. Snowy owls have been spotted in Connecticut, too, but not by me — yet! I’ve never heard of That sounds like a good plan you have, following the meteorologists for severe weather warnings on Twitter. 🙂

          1. They are beautiful Barbara. I follow the local Audubon Society on Facebook to see where they go and what they see. I go to the same places and the eagles, hawks, osprey and many other birds they feature must be sleeping when I’m there. 🙂 My favorite Twitter meteorologist has been in this field 30+ years. I watched him for years on the TV news. He is on a lot of panels for climate change and travels around the world for those seminars. He is quite a scientific nerd (his words not mine), but he explains weather events technically and also in plain-speak. Every storm we have, he Tweets out updates every few minutes for all parts of the Tri-County area. I feel safer following Paul Gross.

          2. I forgot to say (and I see it doesn’t show I replied, but my comment is on your site as I just looked) … is a hyperlocal newspaper and used to be owned by AOL back in the day when I joined Patch as an independent blogger. I just posted the same post, but a different format. But they sold it to Hale Communications and after that they got rid of the Community Engagement Specialist and the editors for all the individual Patch online news sites across the U.S. and just had regional editors (maybe four of them across the U.S.). Then they changed the format. My friend/neighbor who wanted me to start my blog suggested I blog there to get followers. I got none but did it as a favor to her. My blog is carried in the online blog roll of the local newspaper. That is fun, but I have had a few people comment since 2013, but the problem is, I don’t really like to say I live alone (it is pretty evident though) or say too much about myself in my posts (hard to do to be honest). I am going to show a picture of my little hummingbird, but it will be at year end, long after I took the set up away as I don’t want my house identified. Crime is getting bad here.

    1. Comments with links in them go to moderation or spam as a safety precaution. If I think they’re safe then I’ll approve them. I’ve had problems with malicious links before so this is the only way I can screen them out. So feel free to post links, just be prepared to wait until I see the comment on my dashboard and approve it!

      1. OK, that’s good – I am never sure if it goes to SPAM or moderation – some people’s sites say “awaiting moderation” – I tried using a different browser (Opera) and now, I can get into Reader but it does not show notifications or have the usual three icons at the top right-hand side. I logged in/out several times to no avail. So, I am back to Chrome again.

        1. Seems totally random whether comments with links go to the SPAM queue or moderation, but I do check both! (I’ve never heard of Opera either!)

          1. I noticed that too Barbara. In fact, I’ve noticed people who are not followers often go to SPAM. Then, even if they don’t follow my blog, but comment again, they do not go to SPAM. I check twice a day for trapped comments. I get a lot of SPAM … the same comment in a foreign language as many as 30-50 times a day. Some days that same comment just a handful of times. There is no rhyme or reason to it.

          2. In addition to the Askimet protection that comes with WordPress, my son also uses Wordfence to protect my blog. (He’s a computer wizard keeps me up and running because ALL of this is so over my head!) That’s all I know!

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