It’s a little disconcerting to me how, lately, the moment I step outside, something happens. Tuesday late morning, for example, two squadrons of geese came honking low over the trees just as I started out on a walk, and mid-morning yesterday, a pair of A-10 Warthogs thundered overhead seconds after I walked out on the porch to pitch an apple core. This morning at 5:05, no sooner had I sat down outside with my coffee when the resident feral cat, whom I call Coyote Bait (C. B. for short), trotted up the driveway in the moonlight like a detachable shadow. It was so still, I could hear her paws on the gravel: a soft rattle, like the sound the stream makes during a prolonged drought.
Why should this surprise me? Only because I sit inside gazing at the computer monitor like a shaman peering into a crystal, where the merest flicker might foreshadow some fundamental shift in the heart’s climate. Everything seems significant at first, but after a while, it all blends into a gray sea of information, and I begin to tire of the whole human race – our never-ending chatter and busyness, our genius for exploitation.
Outside, meanwhile, the unseasonable warmth returns to melt the snow from last weekend’s storm. Late in the morning, when I finally go out with the camera, a bluebird is singing up by the barn, and a black-capped chickadee fresh from its bath is drying itself out in the lilac bush, puffing out its breast feathers and shaking its wings.
The black-capped chickadee, Parus atricapillus L., is in the tit family (Paridae). Tits are “small, plump, small-billed birds; acrobatic when feeding. Often roam in little bands. Sexes alike,” says Peterson. Though they may appear comical to us, I think chickadees probably take themselves fairly seriously: witness the strict hierarchy maintained within their winter-long foraging flocks. Witness also their tendency to act as scouts in larger, mixed-species flocks and around bird feeders. When they sound the tocsin, all the other birds freeze, and when they issue an all-clear signal, everyone goes back to feeding. They’re like the boy scouts of the bird world. I remember once when I was burning trash, three or four chickadees flying in as close as they could to scold the leaping flames.
Black-capped chickadees are among the brainiest of songbirds. Their social structure is complex; non-breeding chickadees can have memberships in several different foraging flocks at the same time, with different positions in the dominance hierarchies of each. Their simple-sounding songs contain much more complexity than unaided human ears can detect, enabling the communication of quite detailed information. Most astonishing of all, perhaps, are their memories. Chickadees have been known to hoard a thousand seeds and dead insects each day, tucking them into knotholes, under loose pieces of bark, even up inside clusters of pine needles. And researchers have found that they can remember which item is stored where for at least a month. Think of it: 30,000 or more distinct caches within a home range of twenty to fifty acres in size. Not even the most obsessed of human geographers can ever hope to know a landscape in such intimate detail.
What of their ecological niche? Chickadees are foragers and scavengers par excellance. They can digest carrion from a gut pile as easily as goldenrod seeds, spiders, or wild grapes. Specialized leg muscles permit the acrobatics for which they are justly famous, and these contortions enable the gleaning of food that other birds can’t get at. I also can’t help supposing that their year-round, life-long residence in an area, following juvenile dispersal, contributes to their ability to exploit all available resources. With much denser plumage than other species of a comparable size, they are well suited to the vagaries of a northern climate. Each fall, they grow a fresh set of feathers, and portions of their unusually large hippocampus – key to their prodigious memories – also regrow.
Large brains; organization into small bands; physiological adaptations to permit scavenging in an array of habitats: we could almost be talking about Homo sapiens here. But a vanishingly small percentage of the human race retains any experience of what it might mean to become so local as to begin to resemble the very spirit of a place.