Vail Daily column: My moment with a mountain chickadee

Living in the Rocky Mountain high country affords us the opportunity to see all kinds of wildlife. We get a little spoiled, which I realized when my husband refused to stop and watch the elk in Yellowstone. But while we are fortunate to be able to see all kinds of wildlife here in Colorado, it’s not often that we really have a close wildlife encounter.

Just the other morning, however, I had a close encounter with a mountain chickadee outside my bedroom window. With my presence masked by the glass, the little bird flitted from branch to branch on the large blue spruce outside my window. I watched as it moved from one branch to the next, hanging upside down and nibbling at the small twigs and branches. The bird was engaged in a very commonplace activity, eating, but I still felt like I was watching a secret and ancient ritual.

The mountain chickadee has some habits similar to its cousin, the black-capped chickadee, but it is also unique in its own right. While the black-capped birds are typically found in the leafy trees along the water’s edge, the mountain chickadees prefer the coniferous trees of the high mountain forests for feeding. The mountain chickadees depend on the seeds from pine cones to get them through the fall and winter, but in the summer, they feast on insects and spiders that live in the trees. Mountain chickadees are prolific insect-eaters, and one bird in Arizona was found to have 275 caterpillars in its stomach at one time! These birds are important for insect control, especially during big outbreaks.

While the mountain chickadee prefers to feast in conifer trees, they generally make their homes in aspens. These strong little birds have been known to dig out their own nesting cavities when the wood is very soft, but they typically rely on cavities made by woodpeckers or nuthatches. The female makes a neat cup nest out of fur that she gathers and will fill in deep cavities with grasses and other insulating materials to make them just the right size. Chickadees typically have a fairly large clutch size, with five to nine eggs per clutch.

The life of a mountain chickadee looks carefree, as they spend their summers hopping from branch to branch to search for insects. As the days of summer dwindle, though, the mountain chickadees begin their winter preparation. This can include storing food when they find a ready supply, like your birdfeeder. The birds typically split up into small groups that include a few adults and several juveniles, and they will stay in that flock for the winter. Despite the benefits of flocking, these little birds often brave the cold winter nights alone, huddling in foliage or under chunks of bark.

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These miniature mountaineers are also famous for a special adaptation, known as nocturnal hypothermia. Recent research shows that chickadees use induced hypothermia during both summer and winter nights when the temperatures dip low. Scientists estimate that the energy savings from this process is somewhere between 7 and 50 percent. This translates into important energy savings and reduces the amount of food they need to consume during the day.

I felt very privileged to have my moment with the mountain chickadee, but as it turns out, they are known for being fairly tame birds. Some authors even contend that the birds have been seen eating seeds out of a person’s hand! My mountain chickadee didn’t get quite that friendly, but I still consider it a friend. It doesn’t look like me, but it’s just another little being trying to make its way in the world. And while its way differs dramatically from my own, I appreciate those brief moments where I get to really commune with nature and feel our commonalities. Thank you, little mountain chickadee, for sharing a moment with me.

Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. Jaymee loves a good bird sighting, as long as they are not eating out of her garden.

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