Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 28, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:43 pm

Had I come upon this hole ridden branch (pictured above) without seeing the maker, I would have declared this the product of a hungry woodpecker. When woodpeckers search for wood boring beetle larvae, they employ their chisel-like beaks to expose the hidden galleries and their barbed tongues to harpoon the soft prey within.  These birds are well adapted to this task and everything about their being has been developed towards this end. It is natural, therefore, to assume that they have the corner on this market. But, nothing in nature can be assumed – she is far too complicated a dame. No, these excavations were made by Chickadees.

Everyone loves Chickadees. Rarely are they described in anything other than glowing or anthropomorphic terms. “Beloved” and “cheerful” are two words that frequently make their way into any discussions regarding these tiny animated birds.  Now, don’t worry, I am not about to change all that  and reveal the dark side of Chickadee life. I have seen “angry” Chickadees, but that is beside the point. They are neither happy, mad, or sad but instead just “are.” They definitely are not woodpeckers…or are they?

Mostly insect eaters in the summer, Chickadees are expert foragers who increase their seed intake during the winter months. They spend nearly all their waking hours during the cold season investigating every nook, cranny, and hole for hidden food resources. I’ve been attempting to record these birds doing their thing this winter and found their high energy lifestyle was very difficult to record. Take a look at this film snippet (here) and you’ll see three-quarters of my efforts. The birds never stop moving. This hyper active creature can be found in nearly any position within a short span of time. In this knitted sequence, the birds are scrutinizing some tree bark, hanging upside down on a twig, and pulling apart a cat-tail seed head. Although I couldn’t get it on film, one of the birds was even hovering hummingbird style to sip sweet nectary water from a sugar-sickle dripping from a broken maple branch.

It has been estimated that is takes about 10 kcal of energy to keep one of these little dynamos going for a day. When the the birds find their food, they either eat it right away or carry it off to store it someplace. They remember their storage spots (called caches) and return to them when other resources are hard to find. This also means that Chickadees have good memories (or is it memoree-ree-rees?).

There is no doubt that this bird is well adapted for its lifestyle. A close up look at the tiny beak, merely 6 mm long (see below) , reveals the tool of an insect eater/ seed consumer. Just like the teapot in nursery rhyme, the appendage is short and stout. This brings us back to the earlier inference that most animals are not so locked into their structural limitations that they can’t expand their horizons a bit. There are a number of creatures that can’t flex and these are the ones currently on the endangered or threatened species list. Many of the inflexible ones are already extinct.

Life is full of examples, such as a deer that was caught eating ensnared birds out of a mist net or a Mute swan chasing down minnows, that show what seems to be an inappropriate use of God given parts. Chickadees defy the laws of tool use and frequently use their beaklets as chopping tools. A mated pair of birds are even capable of excavating their own nest cavity and often do.

I was delighted to come upon one of these birds recently that was actually staying in one place for an extended period of time (other than the  dead one that posed for the beak shot!). Take a look at this short video and you’ll see a Peckadee at work on the very stick pictured at the beginning of this column. He was expertly chiseling away at the dead wood and switching body positions in order to gain different angles.

I approached the stick after the bird flew away and could see the result of his diligent efforts. As a guy who tends to use a screwdriver as a pry bar, chisel, hammer, and wedge, I feel some kinship with the chickadee. Not that they need it, but I hope that I have given you yet another reason to like them as well.

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