Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 13, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:23 pm

The Black-capped Chickadee is a bird in constant motion. Even on the chilliest of winter mornings, when all other creatures are huddled into motionless balls of fur or feather, this little dynamo is on the move. A day without that high-toned chickadee chatter cutting through the frosty air is a rarity. As a nature chronicler, it is one bird you can count on to provide a living subject for your eye and camera when nothing else is out and about. They actually come to you rather than you to them. Unfortunately, this dynamism also makes them a hard subject to “catch” photographically. Just about the time your auto-focus keys in, the thing shifts position and flits away before the shutter is actually triggered.  You are left with some well focused twig pictures.

A few weeks ago, I was accosted by a gang of neighborhood chickadees while walking one of the trails at Kensington Metropark. The day was snowy and silent and , true to form, these were the only warm-blooded life-form around. This population is probably one of the most photographed populations in S.E. Michigan because they are accustomed to hand feeding by park visitors. Although it is against policy, and rightly so, it is obvious that folks still do this. The birds come out of nowhere and circle your head as you walk – chattering like street vendors. If you hold out your open hand they will land on it (expecting a feed). This is not natural.

Natural or not, I decided to attempt an impromptu and in-focus chickadee picture. I held out my hand and focused on my fingertips. Before I could properly react, however, one of the birds alighted, instantly perceived that I had nothing to give, then turned and flew off. I got a great picture of my gloved hand – every weave detail and textural intricacy of my glove was captured. The birds vanished once my ruse was detected and I was left to take pictures of the Tamarack trees. Trees don’t move much on a still cold day.

I finally captured a fully fluffed chickadee image a few days ago (see larger pictures here and here). The bird was engaged in picking at a sumac seed head. It landed, delivered a few blows at a seed, and moved on.  I happened to be there with my focus and managed to get two shots off. Well, I actually took three shots but there’s no need to show you the naked twig picture.

In short, the chickadee is not an easy bird to freeze into a picture image. But, my point here is not a photographic one. The thing I wish to drive home is that the Chickadee is a hard bird to freeze – period. These tiny birds are masters of thermogenesis: staying warm.

The most obvious Chickidian warmth tactic is apparent in these pictures. You’ll note that the bird is puffed out like a gray pom-pom. The dead air space created by the raised feathers traps and conserves precious body heat. Nearly all birds do this. What is not obvious is that the bird is producing that heat by being active – something called “activity thermogenesis.” This is why they never sit still.

There are two ways to make heat, one is through muscle shivering and the other is by movement and activity. Chickadees carry around very little fat, so can’t get much “burn” out of shivering. Instead they resort to activity thermogenesis which means they generate heat by continually moving. This method requires a lot of food, and chickadees spend over half of their waking hours looking for it, but it also saves energy for those long frigid nights.

You could say that a chickadee at rest during the day will end up staying at rest – forever. They’d freeze into an easily photographed still life! A chickadee at rest during the night is a different story, however. When these birds stop for the evening they really stop. Remarkably, they are able to enter into a controlled state of hypothermia and are able to let their body temperatures drop well below the “safe” level. Every once and a while they engage in short bursts of shivering to keep up appearances until the morning sun prompts them back into action.

So, it appears that Chickadees do make themselves available for portrait shooting; it’s just that their particular sitting period is during the dark of a winter night.

1 Comment »

  1. Despite their flightiness, you got a couple nice shots!

    Comment by Ellen — January 15, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

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