How the Chickadee got its Black Cap and other Related True Stories

I’m taking a birding class. We meet once a month for eight months. Each evening class is two hours in length. There are also field trips. The instructor, Kristi Dranginis, has developed a wonderful curriculum. Each month she emails us a different workbook chapter. Each chapter has a month’s worth of different activities and assignments as well as interesting stories from her own personal experiences as well as different cultural myths and fairy tales about birds.

In order for us to develop a more intimate relationship with the birds in our area, one of the first activities for each class member was to find our Bird Mentor. Throughout the following months, we are then to continue to get to know this Bird Mentor as we progress from chapter to chapter.

To find our Bird Mentor, Kristi asked each student to select a name from a bag. When it was my turn, I swirled my hand around in the bag and pulled out a piece of paper with Black-capped Chickadee written on it. Although not exactly the same, the experience was not unlike having the Sorting Hat placed on one’s head at Hogwarts!

The first activity in this month’s chapter was to “Bring the relationship, knowledge and connection you have with your Bird Mentor to a new and rich place….Your mission today is to write the fairy tale of your Bird Mentor.”

It’s questionable if what follows is really a fairy tale. It might be more like a myth, but I am really not sure of the actual difference between the two.

How the Chickadee got its Black Cap and other Related True Stories

© Robert Winslow

 In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. – John Muir

I

Once upon a magical time, years and years and years ago when I was in grad school and there were wolves in the woods behind my little house, pale gray, black-throated, white-headed, white-cheeked, buffy flanked little birds flitted over the heart-shaped hills. Before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced deer as I strode those ragged ravines and stormy summits with a backpack it snowed and it snowed.

Overnight, the snow grew out of the branches and boughs and boles of the trees and the roof of a small secluded log cabin nestled deep in the silent forest. I had snowshoed into it while my fellow students were off for the week in warmer climes during our spring break from the university. The cabin, owned and operated by the local mountain club, was complete with a wood stove, firewood, a bunk bed, a few dishes, utensils, a tool box, bird seed and a bird feeder. A nearby stream provided fresh water.

cabin 1W15

Upon arriving I lit a fire in the stove to warm the cozy cabin and then filled the bird feeder – which was nothing more than a platform hanging from a branch. Shortly, the pale gray, buffy-flanked little birds with white heads and black throats started arriving and feeding on the sunflower seeds on the wooden boards. They chattered chick adee dee dee. “We are very hungry. Thank you for this food,” They chorused. “We will eat some of these seeds and then hide the rest so that we will have food for later. We can remember thousands of different hiding places” Upon hearing the Chickadee chatterings, within minutes other birds came – including juncos and nuthatches.

Unseen and lurking high up in the canopy were several great gray squirrels who had stashed away enough food for the winter, but were eager for any new treats. Down the tree they bounded, jumped onto the swinging platform filled with sunflower seeds and chased away all of the hungry birds.

The squirrels sat there eating and eating and eating while the Chickadees became more and more agitated calling out chickadee dee dee dee dee dee. The more upset they became, the more dee notes they added to their calls. We watched and waited and waited for the greedy gray squirrels to leave. They did not do so until all of the sunflower seeds had been devoured. The Chickadees were sad and hungry as there weren’t any insects or spiders to eat on this cold winter day, but the squirrels would not let them have even one little bit of food.

II

 Observing this drama unfolding outside the cabin’s frosty window and feeling sorry for the hungry Chickadees, I hunted around for a solution. What I found was an old blackened sooty stove pipe tucked away in a corner of the woodshed that was destined to be hauled out in the summer time. Using tin snips found in the tool box I fashioned the stovepipe into a cone and secured it so that it hung just high enough above the feeder so that the little chickadees, nuthatches and juncos could get in, but the squirrels could not. The metal stove pipe hung like a slightly flattened dunce cap over the platform. I once more filled the feeder and went inside to watch.

Down jumped the squirrels almost immediately. But when they climbed down the rope that the bird feeder was hanging from, they encountered the cone shaped stove pipe covering the feeder and promptly slid to the ground. Frustrated the squirrels tried again and again but each time they slid to the ground. While this was going on the Chickadees flew down into the feeder’s small opening to where they were able to eat the sunflower seeds. They were so happy that once inside the cone covered feeder, they kept on hopping around and bumping their heads on the inside walls of the sooty stove pipe. As they did so the tops of their heads down past their eyes turned from white to a very dark black-cap. They also shook some of the soot down on the juncos and nuthatches. The juncos got most of it.

III

 On my last day as I was hiking back out on hard packed snow, I paused for a moment beside a field. It was snowing a big heavy Springtime snow and I leaned on my ski poles not wanting to leave. How long I lingered there I have no idea. It could have been ten minutes. It could have been two hours. I stood there suspended in time and transformed into the landscape.

snowstorm 3W15

I know that it sounds crazy, but as I stood there my gaze softened and I became part of that field and the woods beyond. Every nerve and fiber in my body told me so. Standing there, surrounded by the soft light and silent falling snow, leaning on my ski poles, I experienced a kind of muted grace – a very profound spiritual sense of peace and belonging. Then softly and without warning, a Chickadee sporting her new black-cap dropped down and landed on my snowshoes that were lashed to the pack on my back. She started singing. It was a beautiful lyrical song: fee bee fee bee or Hey Sweetie, Hey Sweetie. When I became aware of what was happening, I laughed out loud.

Chickadee 0420W14

“Oh, you startled me”, I said.

“I have come to deliver you a message from my brothers and sisters” said the Chickadee.

“Because you have given us food when we were hungry and needed it the most, we will always wear our black caps as a reminder of your kindness.”

“You have honored me beyond words.” I said humbly. “For when I am in your presence, and your brothers and sisters, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. You constantly remind me of my connection to the natural world and how the natural world is connected to all things. I love you. Your song is a reminder to me of the greater community of life and the harmony that we all share. My soul feels soothed and healed when I hear you sing. And when I walk in the woods and see you in flocks being active, acrobatic and curious, I smile and feel a special sense of peace and belonging.”

Chickadee 0431bW13I paused a moment and then continued, “To show you my gratitude for these gifts that I feel in your presence, I promise to feed you and your friends every winter and as a special symbol of our bond I may, from time to time, just for fun, even offer you some sunflower seeds from my hand.”

After one more song, the Chickadee maiden flew away, but the magic remained.

 IV

 And so it was that for many many years during each winter season I would put out seed and suet and the beloved little birds would come and eat and sing to each other and to everyone. Then one enchanted afternoon, late in the Autumn, it started to snow. It was time to feed my friends once again.

Before pouring some sunflower seeds into the feeders, I grabbed a handful, stood out under a large juniper named “Grandmother Tree” and offered up my open palm. The Chickadees flew into the tree in their characteristic bouncy undulating flight, hopped from branch to branch and then dropped down with a flutter of wings to snatch a seed from my open hand before flying off again. Occasionally, one would sit perched on my fingers and peck a seed open without flying away.

After several moments, the light grew softer and the snowflakes became very strange and different looking. They appeared to be small but skillfully torn-up pieces of paper. Then slowly one of the Chickadees that had been feeding from my hand flew up and circled around and around as if looking for something. Eventually, it grabbed one these strange looking snowflakes. She took it in her delicate short thin black bill and gently dropped it down into my hand.

It was a carefully and lovingly folded piece of paper.

I opened it very slowly …. and found my name written on it.

 ********************

Author’s Notes

 The first two paragraphs were inspired – plagiarized – from this beautiful poetic section of a Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

 “Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed …”

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

“muted grace”  These words appear in the first sentence of The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko

“active, acrobatic, curious” quoted directly from http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/black-capped_chickadee/lifehistory

Words, sentences and facts also used from the All About Birds website:

“The chickadee’s black cap and bib; white cheeks; gray back, wings, and tail; and whitish underside with buffy sides are distinctive.”

“The Black-Capped Chickadee hides seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.”

“The more dee notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level.”

“In most of North America, the song is a simple, pure 2 or 3-note whistled fee-bee or hey, sweetie.”

“Chickadees make their chickadee-dee-dee call using increasing numbers of dee notes when they are alarmed.”

And maybe this one from Whatbird.com

“Black bill is short and thin”

“soothed and healed” was taken from the following quote: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” – John Burroughs

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