We live in the land of the wild, and it is always thrilling to spot the great creatures. The majestic eagles are back in their perches by the river. Crafty coyotes have been spotted trotting across the fields between Winthrop and Mazama nearly every day. Leaving tracks in the valley snow, cougars are known to be stalking about. However, it is a small creature that brings joy that I chose to write about this time: the chickadee.
Even the way “chickadee” comes off the tongue in such a lyrical way suggests that these little birds are always pleasant, welcome visitors in our backyards. We love the word enough to name streets, trailheads, ski trails, even cabins after them. Their call of “chickadee-dee-dee” is easily identifiable, as is their little black cap.
What is unusual about the little songbirds is how they survive the winter cold here in the Methow. They have several survival techniques in their toolkit. First, just like us, they put on a heavier coat. With only 1,000 feathers needed in the summer, in the winter their down jackets double to 2,000 feathers. In addition to the extra feathers, they fluff them up to increase the insulating air spaces between the feathers. Then, they tuck their heads and feet up into the feather ball. Snug as a bug in a rug.
What’s snugger than a bug in a rug is a bevy of chickadees snuggled together. On cold nights, many of them may crowd into a tree cavity to benefit from the warmth of their community. A handy woodworker can fabricate a winter roosting box to help the little guys out. If not handy, Patrick at Nice Nests can answer questions and provide the proper boxes for them.
The birds can and do shiver, but that takes a lot of fuel so they need supplemental ways to survive severe cold. They can lower their body temperature into a semi-hibernation state. Then they shiver less and require less food, but still need as much as 20 times the food they would on a warm day. Where to get food in the winter is their next task.
In the fall, chickadees find and store seeds in thousands of hiding places or caches. Clever hoarders that they are, they use many hiding spots so their winter food supply doesn’t get wiped out by a vagrant squirrel or another opportunistic bird. Now how in the world do they remember where they put all their seeds?
This one is phenomenal: they grow a larger brain. If only we humans could do that when we have a lot of things to remember! In the fall, chickadees add 30% to the volume of their brain. They use the position of the sun and landmarks to remember where their food cache locations are and watch with “eagle” eyes for marauding thieves. In the spring when food is plentiful, their brains shrink back to summer size.
The wonder of the chickadee! You can bring them to your yard with a feeder and a food of their choice, black sunflower seeds. Enjoy our cheery, and smart, little neighbors.
Note: All of this delightful information is courtesy of Methow Trails informational signage. Take time to read the fun facts on your trail walks around the valley.