The Chickadee Charmer

In memory of Dad. November 24, 1925 – March 30, 2013

Through the polar blast, the birds huddled in the nook of Dad’s old free-standing feeder. He had made it from steel, cutting and welding, shaping the tray and its own little roof. It stood on a pole about five feet long, just tall enough where if I stood on my toes I could see into it.

As a kid I had a cheap 110 camera I had purchased by saving up coupons. The bird feeder stood under a willow tree my grandfather had planted, right outside the kitchen window. The tree had flourished there, reaching skyward. Its massive trunk split into three columns that held the rattly tree house where I lay on the flat top, letting the sun warm me through the still-naked twigs of reluctant spring.

I used to rest my hand on the edge of the feeder and wait patiently, and if I stood very still, a chickadee would land on me. I would snap photos of the fluffy birds as they squabbled and pecked at the seeds. The pictures were always blurry; too close-up for the equipment of the day. Of course, I couldn’t tell at the time how bad they were going to be.

Among the gathering cardinals, jays, nuthatches and sparrows, the chickadees were the ones who feared me the least. In those days, the birds didn’t get handouts in parking lots or fast food joints. They were truly wild.

Years later, at camp, I saw one chickadee sitting on the feeder, pecking wistfully at a sunflower seed on the other side of the plastic. He could reach the millet but he didn’t want it. He wanted the good stuff.

I remembered the days, so many years ago, with Dad’s feeder, taking photos. I got a handful of sunflower seeds and sat down and just waited.

Eventually, the first bird, who I called the Rookie, did come to my hand. The first time he landed, I remember I thought he would just grab the seed and go. But he sat on my fingers for a long time, hunkered down defensively, eyeing me with care. I tried not to stare directly at him. He finally took one seed and flew off.

After that, it was easier to get him to come down. Once the other birds saw him doing it, we were bombarded. Dad and I made it our mission to always keep sunflower seeds in our pockets. The chickadees perched high in the poplar and spruce trees, their white hatch marks shining like tiny ornaments. They followed Dad around. They perched on the fence when I cleaned the corral and they followed me down the road when I dumped the manure. They would land on Clifford’s back, and on the seat of the tractor. One flew in the open window of Dad’s truck when he pulled in, sitting on the steering wheel and looking at him.

I had only to point at a particular bird, high in a tree, and it would fly down, land on my hand, take a seed and then go.

I thought maybe in spring, I would have to tame them all over again. But they remembered. When we opened up camp, they came around, flinging themselves at our heads when we exited the camper, flashing through the trees and calling their characteristic, “dee dee dee.”

The most surprising thing about these birds was that we could tell them apart. It was not so much by their markings, which were virtually identical, but their behaviors. Each bird had its own habits. The bird Dad called Spotty had a white spot on his head and preferred to eat his seeds from the ground. He would land on Dad’s shoe. The one I called Rookie I always knew, as he sat on the low cedar branch and would say, “Chip” to me softly. He brought a juvenile with him the second year, and fed him faithfully.

Dad said that having those chickadees around camp was one of the nicest things that had ever happened to him.  In thinking back, I will second that notion.

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About Nancy J. Bailey

Artist, author, bad karaoke singer. Woodsy ragamuffin. Mom of a horse named Clifford who plays fetch and paints with watercolors. He visits libraries and schools with me, to promote literacy and making the world a better place. Yes, he is house trained, no, he doesn't live in my house! I have written three books about Clifford. But my newest book, THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN, is co-written by my awesome sister Amanda, who has Down syndrome. Her unexpected one-liner wisecracks can always make me laugh. If you make me laugh, you've made my day!
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