Tag Archives: chickadee

Summer’s Secret Stories

As I mentioned last time, it’s been a hard season for forest babies: no eaglet, no owlet, no bushtit-lets. After realizing this wouldn’t be the year for any of them, it took a while to recalibrate my attention toward the less conspicuous developments of spring nesting, those subtle clues to smaller dramas. On closer inspection, the Black-capped Chickadee hopping through the hawthornes turned out to be gleaning nutritious protein for its children, hidden somewhere in nearby shrubbery but peeping insistently for their forthcoming meal.

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

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Blockwatch Success! Two Tiny Chickadees Get a Little Help From a Federal Act, a Huge State, a Public Utility, and a Private Company

A flash of yellow, glimpsed through the trees outside our living-room window, brought my partner out to the street. It came from high on the light pole that had been of such interest to flickers and chickadees the day before—this time, though, it wasn’t a feathered worker but the widespread, easily-identifiable-without-a-field-guide Yellow-Vested Utility Crew. Bright and early this Monday morning, they were transferring wires from the old, hole-ridden pole to the fresh new one beside it, then would remove the old pole.

Utility worker on nest pole

Utility worker on nest pole
(Photo by Rob Duisberg)

My chickadees! Now what?

The crew finished that day’s work and left. Would the chickadees return, or were they too alarmed by the noise and vibration and tapping of screwdrivers and pliers?

Phew – the next afternoon, Tuesday, the chickadees were back to their diligent excavations. But the drama wasn’t over yet, not by far.

Black-capped Chickadee excavating nest hole

Black-capped Chickadee excavating nest hole

I’m embarrassed to say that the following day, Wednesday, it took me a while to realize that that day’s chickadees continuing the work on nest excavation—

Chickadee peeking out of nest hole

Chickadee peeking out of nest hole

—were not just new birds, but a whole new kind of chickadee. A pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees had taken over the nest hole since Tuesday: the third species in the span of a few days to study the hole in detail, and to work on remodeling it to their specs.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee exiting nest hole with a little bit more sawdust than he can carry

Chestnut-backed Chickadee exiting nest hole,
with a little more sawdust than he can carry

Did the Black-capped Chickadees decide to abandon this nest hole and look for a place in a quieter neighborhood? What would happen to my new little chickadees when the remaining wires were transferred to the new pole? And worse, when the old pole got removed altogether? Could the chickadee nest be saved from being toppled and tossed into a shredder?

A quick call to Seattle Audubon got me the phone numbers of people to call at the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW’s excellent wildlife biologist Chris Anderson) and Seattle City Light (SCL). As each phone rang, I mentally worked up my argument about why even a daily little bird like a chickadee should be protected just as carefully as “charismatic mesofauna” like owls, osprey, and eagles.

Of course, I had to leave a message in each case. Here we go, I thought, eternal phone tag. But I was astounded when in each case, a live human being called back within about 30 minutes: “Of course we’ll get the work stopped on that pole. Let me get your contact info and I’ll copy you on the emails.”


To my surprise and delight, it turns out that the state and the utility want to help wildlife—even two tiny would-be chickadee parents.

Chickadees aren’t endangered and they sure don’t seem too migratory except between my birdfeeder and the cedar beside it, but they’re on the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act protected list. Ron Tressler, the wildlife biologist who heads up SCL’s Wildlife Research Grants Program, explained that this means that the WDFW has issued guidelines to help SCL respect all bird nests, not just the big fancy obvious ones:

  • Leave all nests in place if they do not represent a threat to reliable operations, public safety, or a constitute a nuisance;

  • Remove nuisance nests only when the nesting season is complete and the nest is inactive

Of course, usually SCL gets called about the immense osprey nests that those birds like to build on top of tempting tree-like objects with a fine view of fish-filled water: a perfect description of a high-voltage powerline tower in the Seattle area.

I had a terrific conversation with Scott Thomsen, SCL’s Senior Strategic Advisor for Communications & Public Affairs, who described what’s involved in protecting ospreys and their kids from electric dangers, and who was justifiably proud of SCL’s quick response to my chickadees. (In fact, he’s written about our chickadees for SCL’s own blog — check it out!)

My initial contact at SCL generously offered to contact the local TV/cable company to alert them to hold off on removing the final cables and pole until after nesting season. Mom and Dad Chestnut-backed Chickadee are safe for the season, hopefully along with many chickadeelets. Blockwatch success!

Chestnut-backed Chickadee removing construction debris from his home - now safe for children

Chestnut-backed Chickadee removing construction debris
from his home – now safe for children

It’s part of SCL’s stated mission to be good environmental stewards while working to provide cost-effective power so we can cook our food, heat our homes, and write blog posts on computers. Unlike a lot of organizations that like to sound green, I think these folks actually mean it. Half an hour to get back to one random citizen-naturalist wanting to protect a pair of birds who, if they held wings and jumped together on a postage scale, might tip it at one ounce? With an “of course we will”? That’s pretty good.

Thomsen said he thinks this is the first time SCL has gotten a citizen call about chickadees; if we can all pay attention to avian homebuilding on our blocks, maybe it won’t be the last. Little parents everywhere need your
helping hands.Bird in the hand - Trileigh Tucker


Taking a break from working on a writing deadline, I loaded up my binoculars and camera and headed down my street toward the park. I didn’t make it farther than the end of the block.

Atop the light pole on the corner was a Northern Flicker, calling loudly to an unseen companion (who joined him later).

Northern Flicker with mate

Northern Flicker with mate

Then he made his way vertically down the pole, investigating various holes tiny and large.

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining second hole

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Let’s look at that last photo a little more closely:

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Woodpecker tongues are really amazing. The structure supporting them wraps all the way around their heads, in some cases looping around their eyes.


Woodpecker bone and tongue structure. Click on link for source.

This gives most woodpeckers lots of tongue with which to explore tree cavities—and that means they have to spend less energy on excavation. Then when they encounter delicious bugs, their elegant barbed tongue is sticky enough to grab the bug and bring it back to where the woodpecker can enjoy his meal.

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From "The Woodpeckers," by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From “The Woodpeckers,” by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

But that’s not all we can learn by observing what’s happening on our block! Let’s go back to the flicker’s exploration of the second hole. Did you notice anyone else?

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

These two Black-capped Chickadees flew in together, at first scolding the flicker and then remaining silent as they watched him poke around in their prospective nest holes. They waited until he left, then went back in — maybe to assess what damage he might have done with that huge beak and strange-looking tongue?

Black-capped Chickadee checking out hole post-flicker

Black-capped Chickadee checks out possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores second possible nest hole after visit by flicker

I haven’t seen the chickadees at these holes for the past couple of days; maybe they’ve decided to search for nest cavities on a less popular tree trunk.

*   *   *

This afternoon, lured by irresistible sunshine during this extraordinarily wet April, I headed back out towards the forest. Nope.

I’d heard frantic robin cheeping, so I figured a hawk was somewhere nearby. Another drama in our little corner of the city? Yes – but with different players. As I walked out the door, I turned away from the forest, toward the robin calls…just in time to see a crow fly off with a lovely blue egg in its beak.

Hope and tragedy, all in a few short days on one short city block.

What’s happening on your street?

P.S. – There’s a sequel to this story! Check the next post, “Blockwatch Success,” to see what happened.

Male American Robin

Male American Robin