I fell in love with chickadees on a cloudless February day 16 years ago, when I braved foot-high snowdrifts and subzero wind chills and took a walk with my husband at the Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge near Sag Harbor on Long Island.
I'd heard how the black-capped, white-cheeked birds that flit about the preserve would eat right out of your outstretched hand - as long as your hand was filled with unsalted shelled sunflower seeds, that is. I wasn't disappointed.
And ever since I've done what I could to entice these charming little moochers to my own yard. It's not hard, especially since black-capped chickadees are permanent residents in my neck of the woods, as well as throughout the northern part of our continent.
I entice them with sunflowers and purple coneflowers in the growing season.
I include white pines, balsam firs, bayberries, elderberries, river birches and viburnums. And I have shrub borders that give them shelter from storms and stalkers, as well as a koi pond and waterfall so they can splish and splash year-round. In a birdhouse featuring a tiny front door - a hole about an inch in diameter - they can raise families.
And when the big chill comes, I stock my bird feeder like a candy store with their favorite treats: split peanuts, black oil sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. (Never use salted; they can be deadly to birds.)
For the chickadees, it's a handout. For me, the sight of them warms my frozen spirit. From the tips of their tiny toes to the tops of their black-capped heads, chickadees exude good cheer. Even the distinctive call that gave these social songbirds their common name makes me smile. But chickadees aren't just cute - although they do look like a Christmas card come to life.
Chickadees, I've come to realize, are no birdbrains. They can shell their own seeds, wedging them between their feet and a branch and hammering away with short, stout bills until the snack cracks open. But why make them work so hard? Chickadees need all the food they can get. Adult birds, which measure about 5 inches long and weigh a third of an ounce, can eat as many as 250 seeds on a winter day. That's a lot, considering each bird waits its turn, flying in solo to select a single seed, then taking off to dine in private.
These acrobatic fliers aren't gluttons, although they'll hang upside down from twigs in their search for sustenance, which includes delicacies such as ants, aphids, spiders, katydids, moths and slugs. Chickadees don't live to eat; they eat to live. When they're sated they sock away leftovers in pinecones, tree bark and knotholes, remembering up to a month later where they placed their stash.
The thing is, chickadees pig out so they put on layers of fat to help them get through cold winter nights. They fluff their feathers for extra insulation and even double-up and triple- up in tree cavities and shiver to produce body heat. And if they use up so much fat that they're in danger of freezing, they induce hypothermia by lowering their body temperatures as much as 15 degrees to survive till morning. Then they start eating all over again.
I'm happy when they eat breakfast at my place. I can't resist paraphrasing the last lines of the only movie Mae West and W.C. Fields ever made together: Come over and see me sometime, my little chickadee.