"He is the hero of the woods; there are courage and good nature enough in that compact little body, which you may hide in your fist, to supply a whole groveful of May songsters. He has the Spartan virtue of an eagle, the cheerfulness of a thrush, the nimbleness of Cock Sparrow, the endurance of the sea-birds condensed into his tiny frame, and there have been added a pertness and ingenuity all his own. His curiosity is immense, and his audacity equal to it; I have even had one alight upon the barrel of the gun over my shoulders as I sat quietly under his tree."
OWEVER careless we may be of our bird friends when we are in the midst of the luxurious life of summer, even the most careless among us give pleased attention to the birds that bravely endure with us the rigors of winter. And when this winged companion of winter proves to be the most fascinating little ball of feathers ever created, constantly overflowing with cheerful song, our pleased attention changes to active delight. Thus it is, that in all the lands of snowy winters the chickadee is a loved comrade of the country wayfarer; that happy song "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" finds its way to the dullest consciousness and the most callous heart.
The chickadees appear in small flocks in the winter and often in company with the nuthatches. The chickadees work on the twigs and ends of branches, while the nuthatches usually mine the bark of the trunk and larger branches, the former hunting insect eggs and the latter, insects tucked away in winter quarters. When the chickadee is prospecting for eggs, it looks the twig over, first above and then hangs head down and inspects it from below; it is a thorough worker and doesn't intend to overlook anything whatever; and however busily it is hunting, it always finds time for singing; whether on the wing or perched upon a twig or hanging from it like an acrobat, head down, it sends forth its happy "chickadeedee" to assure us that this world is all right and good enough for anybody. Besides this song, it begins in February to sing a most seductive "fee-bee," giving a rising inflection to the first syllable and a long, falling inflection to the last, which makes it a very different song from the short, jerky notes of the phoebe-bird, which cuts the last syllable short and gives it a rising inflection. More than this, the chickadee has some chatty conversational notes, and now and then performs a bewitching little yodle, which is a fit expression of its own delicious personality.
The general effect of the colors of the chickadee is grayish brown above and grayish white below. The top of the head is black, the sides white, and it has a seductive little black bib under its chin. The back is grayish, the wings and tail are dark gray, the feathers having white margins. The breast is grayish white changing to buff or brownish at the sides and below. It is often called the "Black-capped Titmouse," and it may always be distinguished by black cap and black bib. It is smaller than the English sparrow; its beak is a sharp little pick just fitted for taking insect eggs off twigs and from under bark. Insects are obliged to pass the winter in some stage of their existence, and many of them wisely remain in the egg until there is something worth doing in the way of eating. These eggs are glued fast to the food trees by the mother insect and thus provides abundant food for the chickadees. It has been estimated that one chickadee will destroy several hundred insect eggs in one day, and it has been proven that orchards frequented by these birds are much more free from insect pests than other orchards in the same locality. They can be enticed into orchards by putting up beef fat or bones and thus we can secure their valuable service. In summer these birds attack caterpillars and other insects.
When it comes to nest building, if the chickadees cannot find a house to rent they proceed to dig out a proper hole from some decaying tree, which they line with moss, feathers, fur or some other soft material. The nest is often not higher than six to ten feet from the ground. One which I studied was in a decaying fence post. The eggs are white, sparsely speckled and spotted with lilac or rufous. The young birds are often eight in number and how these fubsy birdlings manage to pack themselves in such a small hole is a wonder, and probably gives them good discipline in bearing hardships cheerfully.
Reference—Useful Birds and Their Protection, Forbush, p. 163; Birds of Village and Field, Merriam; Bird Neighbors, Blanchan.
Leading thought—The chickadee is as useful as it is delightful; it remains in the North during winter, working hard to clear our trees of insect eggs and singing cheerily all day. It is so friendly that we can induce it to come even to the window sill, by putting out suet to show our friendly interest.
Methods—Put beef fat on the trees near the schoolhouse in December and replenish it afresh about every two or three weeks. The chickadees will come to the feast and may be observed all winter. Give the questions a few at a time and let the children read in the bird books a record of the benefits derived from this bird.
1. Where have you seen the chickadees? What were they doing? Were there several together?
2. What is the common song of the chickadee? What other notes has it? Have you heard it yodle? Have you heard it sing "fe-bee, fee-bee"? How does this song differ from that of the phoebe-bird? Does it sing on the wing or when at rest?
3. What is the color of the chickadee: Top and sides of head, back, wings, tail, throat, breast, under parts? Compare size of chickadee with that of English sparrow.
4. What is the shape of the chickadee's bill and for what is it adapted? What is the food in winter? Where does the bird find it? How does it act when feeding and hunting for food?
5. Does the chickadee usually alight on the ends of the branches or on the larger portions near the trunk of the tree?
6. How can you distinguish the chickadees from their companions, the nuthatches?
7. Does the chickadee ever seem discouraged by the snow and cold weather? Do you know another name for the chickadee?
8. Where does it build its nest? Of what material? Have you ever watched one of these nests? If so, tell about it.
9. How does the chickadee benefit our orchards and shade trees? How can we induce it to feel at home with us and work for us?
Supplementary reading—"Foster Baby," Nestlings of Forest and Marsh; "Ch'-geegee-lokh-sis," Ways of Wood Folk; "Why a Chickadee Goes Crazy," Animal Heroes, Seton; "The Titmouse," a poem, by Emerson.