Eleanor Deckert

How does such a tiny creature survive winter?

Only 12-14 cm long, weighing less than a chocolate bar, chickadees neither hibernate nor migrate, but stay all year and somehow make it through barren months, long nights, bitter temperatures, and snow-covered food sources.

Many people put out bird feeders and are rewarded by watching the bird's perky antics and their easily recognized, cheerful song. Give them one small handful of seeds. Enjoy one tiny voice in the vast winter white.

There are seven different kinds of chickadees in North America, 62 species worldwide, each with slightly different marking, range, and habits.

Scientists who study birds have discovered that these forest folk actually cache seeds, larvae and insects and return during the winter to feed. Besides their especially dense plumage, chickadees in northern climates have two other ways to survive the cold. They find or peck out snug places to shelter such as stumps, hollow places, under flaps of bark. Also, their bodies go into a kind of hypothermia during the long nighttime hours, reducing their body temperature and slowing their metabolism so that their daytime meals provide enough fuel to make it through the night. Chickadees excavate a hollow for a nest in rotten wood, bringing soft material for their 4-12 eggs, which are only about one centimeter.

In areas where there are bird feeders, there is a greatly improved survival rate. Mixed birdseed, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet offer the resources they need. It is possible to gain the trust of these birds by standing very still beside the empty feeder and holding sunflower seeds in an open palm. Maybe in a few minutes, maybe next time, the birds will become almost tame. If they are fed at the same time each day they come to expect, even gather and call out, demanding their breakfast.

I remember when I was in Brownies we smeared peanut butter over open pine cones (each with a red ribbon for hanging) then rolled the prickly, sticky project in a pie pan full of bird seed. Proudly becoming a Nature Conservationist, I watched through my bedroom window as the fluttering acrobats visited again and again.

I think they were the first wild birds I learned to recognize. Somehow they remind me to make wintertime a good time to go outside and enjoy the brisk, bright, blustery day. They also remind me how much one tiny cheerful voice can cut through grey days.

Because these social birds usually move in little flocks, they also remind me that I can choose to move from “I am all alone” to “Let's do this together.”

I find it amazing that something so small can make such a big difference. Maybe the antics of the tiny chickadee can teach me a significant lesson.

I might not have a spectacular voice, but I can still sing along with Grover and Elmo and Big Bird:

“Sing! Sing a song,

Make it simple to last your whole life long.

Don't worry if it's not good enough for anyone else to hear.

Just sing, sing a song!”

(Written by Joe Raposo, used on the first season of Sesame Street)

I might not win any championship, collect a trophy, be recognized for outstanding achievements, have celebrity status, donate wealth to build a hospital wing, but I can make some small contribution... today.

“Warm a heart,

Hold a hand,

Lend an ear,

Pat a back,

Light up a face,

Tickle a funny bone,

Dry an eye,

Surprise a child,

Woo a sweetheart,

Toast a bride,

Welcome a stranger,

Wave good-bye,

Shout bravo,

Blow a kiss,

Mend a quarrel,

Ease a pain,

Boost a morale,

Stop a worry,

Start a tradition.”