I Want to Talk With the Animals

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.


10 thoughts on “I Want to Talk With the Animals

    • Thanks, Sybil! I’ve been pretty lucky. As a field biologist, you spend so much time out in the woods that eventually you end up in the right place at the right time.

  1. Hi Heather, This study was featured on CBC Radio not that long ago. It was a great piece, and here’s a link…
    Your study (don’t you just love double-entendre?; ) is adorable and brings back wonderful memories of a childhood neighbour (also husband of my first boss), who would have everyone believe he was the toughest, gruffest, meanest old bird in the woods. But I knew better, ’cause I’d watched him, patiently feeding the chickadees while waiting to pack us back out after a long day spent feeding hungry skiers at “Mount” Kirby’s Old Chalet. Thank you for this. Merry Christmas to you and yours!
    P.S. Did you know that the pattern of a chickadee’s warning call indicates threat levels? When repeated more often (dee, dee, dee, dee) the more imminent/dangerous the threat).

    • Hi Deb. Thanks for the link. I hadn’t heard that one before. Sounds like your neighbour might have been someone I would’ve enjoyed meeting. He reminds me of a fellow who lives not too far from me. I think he’s the reason our chickadees are so tame in the first place.
      I had read about the variation in chickadee warning calls. Thanks for sharing the translation here. Glad to know that if I get any call, it’s never more than two ‘dees’ 🙂
      Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  2. I wanna be a field biologist! 🙂 I can certainly identify with the Dr. Doolittle complex, however my few encounters with wildlife have left me with little sense of connection, a fact that I both regret and respect. However I never walk out without the dream of that encounter. I love that you have nourished this relationship and others (a friendly fox comes to mind) without disturbing their natural patterns. If only everyone could experience such ‘friendships’, many of our global problems would disappear overnight.

    What Deb said about the pattern of the chickadee’s calls sound right to me. I’ve heard the variations on my winter rambles and would like to claim that my approach only merits a medium level repetition. (And I missed that Ideas episode, Deb and plan to listen to it while doing some Christmas prep today. Corvids – ravens especially – fascinate me.)

    Heather, as always you have enriched mind and soul with your paired art and article. Thank you. I hope you manage some ‘just for me’ time over the holiday.

    All the best,

    • Thanks, Cindy. Fieldwork is hard, exhausting, dirty and usually bug-infested work, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I actually still technically do some research. I have my banding permit for cavity-nesting owls and am building a nestbox monitoring program in the Interlake region where I live.

      Even without the fieldwork, I’ve been lucky to have many encounters with wildlife. I don’t know if I’m projecting, but I tend to feel a connection with just about every living thing I encounter, but then I have a habit of talking to trees 🙂

      I’ll try and set aside some time, but alas, when you work for yourself, you always work for a slave-driver 🙂 Merry Christmas, and I look forward to sharing more stories with you in 2012.

  3. I love this image, Heather, and greatly admire your way of artfully combining creativity, science and they mystery of it all. Like you, those unexpected moments of connection with wildlife are ones I’ll never forget. The chickadees at my cabin in the woods took food from my hand after only a short time, but here at the farm they are much more wary – it’s going to take a long time, I think! I didn’t realize their life span is only up to 2 years…I wonder why this is. I’m looking forward more of your wonderful observations and creations in the New Year! Best wishes, Cait

    • Thanks, Cait. I’m very glad you enjoyed it. The creativity comes and goes in waves, but when it comes, it’s usually a pretty cathartic moment.
      Your cabin chickadees might have learned the habit from someone else. I know that’s how mine decided I was an easy target. As for the farm birds, you just have to have the patience to sit still near the feeder for a very long time. Not easy, for sure!
      Songbirds have very high metabolisms and like small mammals, burn out very quickly or they get eaten. Knowing this makes me appreciate our moments together even more 🙂
      Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comments. Happy new year and best wishes for 2012.

  4. Just such a lovely post, and I agree, communicating with animals never gets old, I lose track of time watching wildlife just be. Let me wish you a very happy 2012. x Ailsa

    • Thanks, Ailsa. I can relate to losing yourself in the moment, watching wildlife or wilderness just exist. I wish more people knew how to do it. We’d likely be living in a different world if they did.
      Happy new year and all the best in 2012! Should I ever get to NYC, I’ll expect a walk around Battery Park 🙂

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