One of my favorite birds is the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Weighing only 11 to 12 grams, or about the weight of a AAA battery, these non-migratory birds are found from the northern two thirds of the U.S. into Canada and much of Alaska.
Black-capped chickadees are supremely adaptive birds. I’ve witnessed them quietly working the grooves of lodgepole pine trees on minus 40 degree mornings not far from Old Faithful, eating insect larvae or spider eggs they’ve found, or (more likely) stashed there in advance. In winter, they may eat up to 60% of their body weight daily.
On winter nights, black-capped chickadees lower their body temperature to the low 90s from their typical metabolic temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit. They also shiver to keep warm, and in brutal cold spells enter a state of torpor to conserve vital energy. Perhaps the expression “tough bird” comes from the black-capped chickadee’s example!
Erik and I enjoy watching them hammering insects on nearby tree branches, or zooming close overhead when we’re lounging in the backyard. What strikes me most is their indomitable spirit; they seem unfazed, upbeat and resourceful, no matter what’s happening in their world.
The black-capped chickadee remains a spiritually and culturally significant to Crow Native Americans, who today mainly reside on or near the Crow Native American Reservation in Montana.
As a youth, the last Crow traditional tribal chief, Plenty Coups (1848-1932), had a vision of a great storm that toppled all but one tree in a vast forest. Perched on the lone surviving tree was a chickadee, long regarded by the Crow people as a good listener and able to adapt to change. As Plenty Coups shared his vision with tribal elders, they interpreted it as a sign that the Crow nation would best survive moving forward by making peace rather than warring with the U.S. government.
By the end of the 19th century, and in less than a few generations, Chief Plenty Coups and his people had shifted from being nomadic buffalo hunters to living a more individualized, agricultural based existence. Today, Chief Plenty Coups State Park near Pryor, Montana chronicles the unimaginably swift changes his people underwent and had to adapt to.
Before he died, Plenty Coups and his wife Strikes the Iron gifted part of their family homestead and farm to the state of Montana as a public park. Today it remains a vital, enduring bridge connecting different generations and cultures, highlighting the importance of building greater understanding, empathy and cooperation between others.
Small but mighty is the chickadee, living amongst and between people who may see and experience the world differently. Yet this bird reminds us we are not all that different from each other deep at heart, that adapting, working and thriving together is healthier, smarter and saner than fueling fear, hatred and division.