Chickadees Lead the Way

February 24, 2013


by Kay Charter – (photo credit – Wayne Richard Pope)

As soon as my husband and I established Charter Sanctuary – a safe haven for migrating and nesting birds in Leelanau County – we began to get questions about what to feed birds. Adapting the old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,” I always said to simply provide habitat. That way, the birds on your property will be able to find food throughout their lives. In the twenty years since we founded our sanctuary, what to feed birds has remained a common question. My answer has remained the same.

My belief that a healthy habitat won’t fail to provide for the birds was reinforced by personal experience, especially during our winters away. Our first task after we returned was to fill our feeders. Within minutes our regulars – chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers and jays, were back at their posts. That was proof enough that healthy habitat provides for birds. Our resident birds always made it safely through the winter. Chickadee on Seeds

But this past year, natural food for all northern birds (including those from Canada) was in very short supply. That became apparent on Charter Sanctuary in the fall when chickadees began caching huge stores of sunflower seeds.  Chickadees regularly stash seeds before winter. They are known to hide as many as 2000 seeds per individual (and they find up to 90% of those seeds – think of that the next time you’re tempted to call someone a “birdbrain”). But last fall, our chickadees’ seed saving behavior bordered on frantic. For the first time ever, I worried about our little birds during our absence. Rightly so.

We got back just after the middle of February on a cold, sunny day. Before we unloaded the car, feeders were filled to the brim. But no birds came. None came in minutes and none came in hours. By day’s end, not a single bird had appeared. It was eerily silent. In the twenty years we’ve been here, we’ve never had a day when there were no birds on the property. But this year, there wasn’t a single bird for four full days.

Especially hard was the absence of chickadees. I love all birds, but songbirds are particularly close to my heart. It was for songbirds that we purchased this property, and it is for songbirds that we work diligently to improve habitat for them. It is for them we bring young students here in order to introduce them to the magic of songbirds and their need for habitat.

In the center of my passion, there is a special place for those social little birds with the black cap and sunny “dee-dee-dee” contact calls. Their absence was deeply worrisome. It is widely known that this was a tough winter for birds. Great irruptions of far northern species like redpolls, crossbills, and Bohemian Waxwings wandered across the entire eastern part of the country in search of food. Perhaps our chickadees had been forced to wander afar as well.

On our fourth day back, I had to go to town for a meeting. Immediately upon my return, my husband said, “Your birds are back.” And so they were. Our chickadees were here. They were on the feeders, and they were in the trees. They plucked seeds one at a time, as is their habit.

Two days later, a single Downy Woodpecker showed up. Then a Hairy Woodpecker was followed by a Blue Jay. Before the day was out, dozens of Common Redpolls fought for a perch on the thistle feeder. The next day a Redbellied Woodpecker arrived. Birds find their food by sight; they see it and take it. But they also communicate by voice, and in this case, our returning chickadees let every other feathered creature within earshot know that the pantry was once again full at Charter Sanctuary.

There is no question that the most important thing we can do for birds is to offer them healthy habitat. But when Mother Nature fails to fill her larder, we can also help by offering fresh seeds and suet in clean feeders.

Kay Charter is executive director of Saving Birds Thru Habitat (, an organization that teaches how to help migrating birds whose populations are declining.  She and her husband Jim have owned and managed their 44-acre bird sanctuary for 20 years.  More than 60 species of birds have nested on the property.

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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