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Monday, May 22, 2006

A Chickadee Soap

Last Spring Felicia and I had the fun of watching two Black Capped Chickadees court, find a home, build a nest, have babies, raise them and then endure the anxiety of watching them leave the nest and enter a predator filled world. When courting, the male Black Capped Chickadee has a very specific three-note call he uses to attract the female. In musical terms, it consists of one high-pitched quarter note followed by two eighth notes, each one third lower in pitch than the first note. Felicia and I found the little call so appealing that now, when we go shopping and get separated, we whistle it as a way to find each other, using it as a kind of Marco Polo bird song.

We had a number of Black Capped males advertising themselves last spring and their calls to prospective females were constant. One couple hooked up and chose to live close to our house giving us the opportunity to observe their lives for about eight weeks. We have an Aspen adjacent to our second story deck and this particular chickadee couple built their nest in a little wren house I had attached at the 15 foot level. The female inspected the house a number of times before deciding it was acceptable and we wondered what, specifically, she was looking for. The male perched nervously on a nearby branch, hoping she would find the little house acceptable. Once she did, they immediately began nest building. They made hundreds of flights to the gully behind our home and returned with a variety of nesting materials, including tiny feathers, hair, plant down, and insect cocoons. It took them almost two weeks to build the nest and we were impressed with their industry and single mindedness.

Felicia and I watched them at eye level from the comfort of our lounging chairs and made many a guess about what they might be thinking or planning. Neither of us had ever watched Black Capped Chickadees before and it was fun observing their rituals and learning their different calls. While telling my daughter Shannon about the couple, she said: "You should name them." I asked her if she had any ideas for names and she said: "How about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire? And the babies can be the Ginger Snaps." Felicia and I thought this was creative and funny and so we adopted the names.

Once the nest was completed, Ginger laid her eggs. Chickadees typically have a two to six egg clutch and the female stays on the eggs while the male feeds her. We noticed that if Fred approached the nest and did not announce himself Ginger would emit an angry hissing sound. Fred quickly learned to cue Ginger to his presence with a little six note song that said: "It'ss just me with a tasty spider or insect." His commitment was touching and we watched, impressed, as he worked all day, every day, morning till evening, making countless hunting trips to the gully and back with her food. We wondered if she, like human mothers, had particular yens, perhaps for the more salty variety of spider or for that sweet 3AM snack; maybe a berry or a particular kind of sugar filled bee or ant.

After about two and one half weeks, the babies hatched and at that point both Fred and Ginger went into high gear. Feeding six little chicks was hard work and within a week after the hatching we could hear the little chicks' high pitched chirping when Ginger or Fred entered the nest with something to eat.

It was at this point that we stumbled upon a story in the local newspaper. It was an article by an ornithologist describing the life of Black Capped Chickadees. He discussed their habits and mating rituals and as we read the article we were impressed with his expertise because Fred and Ginger were indeed doing the very things he described. But, toward the end of the article he wrote the following: "One characteristic of the female Black Capped Chickadee is that she is prone to infidelity. When an unattached Black Capped male is in the area and sends out his mating call, if the volume of his call exceeds that of her already chosen mate, she will fly out to the bachelor chickadee, have sex, and then resume nest building with her mate."

He also wote that she would almost certainly do this with more than one bachelor chickadee and that the number of these “quickies” depended upon the song volume of any given sweet talking Black Capped bachelors who were visiting the area. The greater the song volume the bigger the chest and who knows what else. These shenanigans all occur after she has chosen her mate but before she lays her eggs. The author further explained that such behavior is motivated by a genetic, improve-the-species drive. Thus, to our dismay, we were forced to conclude that some of the eggs in the nest were almost certainly not little Fred's. He was raising another bird’s children!

Felicia and I were shocked by this information and, needless to say, very disappointed by Ginger's behavior. We began to refer to her as “the little slut" and both of us felt genuine empathy for Fred. We were righteously angry that such a hard working and dedicated family bird should be cuckolded. We concluded that he probably knew about the multiple affairs but loved her so much he overlooked them, ignoring his pain for the greater good of the coming family. We gossiped about Ginger and our perception of her was now colored by our discovery that she was a liar and a cheat. We made sad little “what are you going to do," faces, and shook our heads disapprovingly at her lack of appreciation for Fred's loyalty and devotion. We spoke with disgust about the corrupt and selfish Black Capped bachelors who preyed on young, impressionable married chickadees who had too much time on their hands. However, we were, sadly, also guilty of revisionism and decided that Fred had all along worked much harder than Ginger and we wondered how we could have initially missed her obviously entitled, “What have you done for me lately" attitude. We remembered her hissing at Fred when all he was trying to do was feed her during her pregnancy. We agreed that Fred should have put some sort of pre-nup in place. But of course how could he have known the real Ginger. We agreed that she had done a masterful job of selling him a bill of goods. We also concluded that if they did not make it Fred should definitely get the house. We were the landlords, by God, and we will have some say.

We also had discussions about whether or not the size of a bird’s mating song really mattered. We concluded that Ginger must have had many such experiences and had become sexually corrupt before seducing Fred. Yes, we concluded that, naturally, she had seduced him; and that he only thought he had courted her.

It was at this point that Fred and Ginger experienced a devastating family crisis. One so disturbing that Ginger's infidelity paled by comparison. It was late one afternoon as we walked onto our deck. We checked Fred and Ginger's house and noticed that some of the chicks were now missing from the nest. We concluded that they had flown away. It takes Black Capped chicks about three weeks to mature to the point where they can leave the nest and the three weeks were up. Then, at that moment, the last two chicks flew from the birdhouse opening down onto our back lawn. Their wings were strong enough to keep them from crashing but not strong enough to sustain flight. We looked for Fred and Ginger and discovered that they were each perched on low tree branches at opposite ends of the yard and both were sending loud calls to the two chicks. Their constant squawks had an intense and alarmed quality that we suspected was too strong to be merely attempts to urge the chicks to fly. Felicia and I scanned the yard and discovered that a mature, foot tall American Kestrel, an orange-brown falcon, was perched on one of our fence posts and eyeing the two chicks. The chicks were instinctively motionless on the grass. Felicia and I held our breaths as we watched the drama unfold.

Fred and Ginger were beside themselves, flying from tree branch to tree branch while entreating their chicks to fly away. I pulled out my Birder's Handbook and hurriedly searched for information about American Kestrels. I discovered that unlike some of their falcon cousins, they have no qualms about picking their prey off the ground and because of this they are described as "swooper” feeders. We watched the scene. It did not look good. We thought about intervening but dismissed that as unwise interference with the natural order of things.

The kestrel made its move, flew with lightening quickness into the yard, swooped down and flew off with one of the chicks in its talons. The other chick, flushed by the kestrel, flew into the safety of the gully. We were horrified. Fred and Ginger flew in circles and made sad little muted bird sounds. We felt for them. My god! Eight weeks of work and then this.

Though we looked for them, Fred and Ginger never returned to their home. Spring turned to summer and, over time, Felicia and I healed. Time has a way of helping. This year the aspen to which their birdhouse was attached had to be cut down due to a parasite invasion. Though there are still Black Capped Chickadees in the area, we are almost certain that Fred and Ginger are not among them. We believe that the affairs and the loss of their chick was too much for them to overcome and that they opted for a change of scenery. We also believe that Fred forgave Ginger and that his unconditional love combined with their new locale saved their relationship.





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