I’ve always had a bit of a Dr. Doolittle complex; but then, I think most of us have at some point, at least those of us who read nature blogs. Maybe it’s a by-product of having grown up with Disney movies full of talking animals and birds that sing along with your happy tune. Whatever the cause, I’ve always been looking for ways to make a connection with wildlife.
I feel very fortunate to have succeeded on a number of levels. Years as a field biologist have led to encounters of all sorts, from young owls hanging out in my pocket and pulling moose out of sink-holes to being warned off by a pack of coyotes or nearly run over by an escaping fawn.
Lately, it’s been all about the birds. My local black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches have me trained. A few years ago, they descended on me one autumn afternoon, demanding food like kids on Halloween. One thing led to another and it quickly became a yearly tradition. When the days begin to grow shorter and the supply of insects dries up, my little masked bandits show up at the kitchen window, fluttering in front of the glass, letting me know it’s time to get out the sunflower seeds.
It’s an experience that will never get old: sitting on my back porch, hand out, while a half dozen or so chickadees flit between my outstretched fingers and the nearest trees, shuttling a seed or two back to their favourite hiding place. What fascinates me is how they come to trust in the first place.
It’s not uncommon for an animal to overcome its fear of humans for a good food source; but to come back year after year and to even seek me out in the first place is pretty remarkable when you think about it. However, for these species, a good memory can be the key to a long life. Resident boreal songbirds go through boom and bust cycles when it comes to food and will store the overabundance during the good times to help them through the leaner months. The trick is remembering where they put it.
Birds, as a rule, don’t have much of a sense of smell, so they can’t seek out food caches by picking up their scent, like a dog or a squirrel. They have to remember their hiding places. Chickadees are pretty good at it, finding a little over half of their nooks and pilfering any others they find by accident. Corvids, like ravens, crows and jays have even sharper memories, with some species being able to remember up to 80% of their cache locations. Like most of us, they use landmarks. Studies with Clark’s Nutcrackers have found that the birds take note of the relative position of rocks and branches to mark their troves.
Good memories in corvids also extend to who to trust and who is dangerous. Long-term studies at the University of Washington have shown that crows can remember people who’ve done them wrong for many years, harassing them whenever they get too close. So, if crows can do it, why not chickadees? But, how does this knowledge survive over several years? While crows can live for decades, the average lifespan of a chickadee isn’t more than two years.
Well, you know what they say, word travels fast. Chickadees are social birds with complex methods of communication biologists are only now getting a handle on. Those same studies in Washington found that crows pass on their knowledge to others within their range. Chickadees likely do the same. In fact, they manage to pass on their knowledge to others beyond their species. Turns out, nuthatches can apparently understand ‘chickadee’, at least when it comes to information about predators. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re also picking up information about food by hanging around their ever-chattering flocks.
Once the snow melts, these flocks will disperse, scattering into the shadows of the forest to start their families for the year. In the meantime, their cheerful noise will bring warmth to the coldest of our winter days even if I can’t help but wish I could get in on the conversation.