I and the Bird

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Friday, April 07, 2006


Black-Capped Chickadees are the state bird of Maine, a fact that was drilled into me in elementary classroom after elementary classroom. As a kid this fact was always kind of a let down. Chickadees were small and wimpy and kind of annoying-sounding, couldn't Maine have picked an eagle or a hawk or a sweet talking parrot or something? And, to make things worse, Maine's state flower is A PINE CONE.
"Hey sweetheart I brought you a lovely bouquet of pine cones."
"Oh, can I smell them?"
"They don't smell like anything except wood and sap and dirt. Plus they'll probably cut your nose. I love you."
So, Maine is pretty lame when it comes to picking it's official things:
Flower:White Pine cone. Nice.
Tree:White Pine. There's a shocker.
Nickname: Pine Tree State. These state lists brought to you by the Maine State Pine Tree Board.
Song: "State Song of Maine" by Roger V Snow. Are you kidding me? It's called the "State Song of Maine?" What kind of balls does this guy have to come right out and name it "The State Song of Maine"? The real winner: "Maine" by They Might Be Giants singer John Linnell. Awesome song where Maine is a giant crushing evildoers.
State Soil: Chesunkook. Oh I totally thought it was gonna be Tunbridge for state soil but then BANG Chesunkook! What an upset! I guess the voters were really looking for more of a classic Spodosol that typifies the northern temperate regions. We'll be talking about this one for ages.

And don't get me wrong, here. I'm not trying to talk trash about my beloved home state (check out the tattoo on my right arm...), I'm just saying that as an elementary school student it wasn't exactly a thriller learning about the official Maine state stuff. Even the flag is boring.

So this is all a long way of saying that it took me a while to figure out just how cool Black-Capped Chickadees are. It wasn't until this past summer, in fact, when I was working in the state forests of south-central New York state.

I'm really big into David Attenborough-narrated documentaries (ie, Blue Planet, Life of Birds...) and I remember something on one episode of the Life of Mammals. There are these monkeys in East Africa that travel in groups with other monkeys and mammals. Some of the animals are near the forest floor, some are near the tops of trees, some are at the front and some are at the back. See, there are a lot of predators in the forest: jungle cats and hawks especially. The monkeys have found, though, that traveling in groups with many animals acting as lookouts on different levels of the jungle offers them a lot more protection coverage than otherwise.

Chickadees, I found, do the exact same thing. They are very garrulous, active birds and travel in small flocks (eh...15?) through the woods. I would usually encounter them while standing in a silent part of the woods. I would hear a peep or a twitter in the distance, and then it would get louder and more voices would join and all of a sudden I was in the middle of a boisterous swarm of jumping and yelping birds that would depart in the same fashion, leaving me in the same, silent spot.

As the summer went on I noticed that other birds (always nuthatches and titmice, often warblers) would tag along with chickadee flocks and form roving gangs of songbirds, often the only birds in the forest. I suspect (with no scientific base) that after mating was finished and once the leaves begun to thin, the other birds found it advantageous to travel with the chickadees for protection (as the monkeys) and to exploit the reliable food sources that the year-round chickadees knew. As a wildlife photographer, I learned to love the sounds of chickadees. They are friendly, trusting and always presented themselves nicely for pictures.

I guess Maine knew what it was doing on that particular selection. Pine cone, though? LAAAMMMEEE.
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