Our Amazing Lathrop Chickadees

by Barbara Walvoord

Our black-dapped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) have amazing memories, language skills, and home-making capabilities.

We tend to think that birds live from day to day and eat everything they find right on the spot. But not so. Chickadees hide seeds and other food to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot, and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.

Pretty amazing, given that I sometimes can’t even remember what’s in my own refrigerator.

But chickadees have tiny brains, so how do they remember all those places? By ruthlessly bulldozing the past. Every fall, brain neurons containing old information die out, and new neurons grow to hold new information.

My brain neurons may exhibit some level of mortality, I will admit, but I DO remember lots of things from the past, including stuff I put away in the past. That is, I can remember THAT I put it away, even if I can’t remember WHERE I put it.

And, unlike chickadees, who drive their own young away from their flock in winter, I welcome my flock of offspring at the holidays, somehow finding food for them in my refrigerator.

In their flocks, which often include other kinds of birds, chickadees use complex calls to identify themselves, recognize others, and sound alarms when predators come around. The more “dee” notes in the call, the higher the predator level. Birds of other species will respond to a chickadee alarm call, even when their own species has no similar alarm call. We could investigate such a system for our alarms at Lathrop: pull the cord once for a small emergency, two or three times for a larger emergency, and four times (Chicadee dee dee DEE) for the really big stuff. Or dial 91111.

When “cold wind doth blow and we shall have snow,” what does the poor chickadee do then? Each individual chickadee picks out or pecks out a cavity in rotten wood and tucks into it. That would be the equivalent of your picking a dead tree trunk and chewing a hole large enough for your body–in my case, an extra large hole, since my body does not quite bend and tuck the way it used to.

The oldest known wild chickadee lived to be 12 years and 5 months old. Here’s to Happy New Year and a long life to our amazing Lathrop chickadees. (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/lifehistory)

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