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Assessing nature not always clear-cut

A black-capped chickadee gathers nest material from a dead red squirrel. By Keith Corliss

The fact that red squirrels are major predators of songbirds in the eastern U.S. makes some people anthropomorphically uncomfortable. Those fun frolicky tree climbers seem—to the uninformed—so innocent and charming. And about those cute little songsters popping in and out of your birdhouse, the house wrens, yeah, they've got a rather unkind habit of being pugnacious and rude neighbors to the point of entering nearby nests and destroying eggs.

Admit it, you also felt a little squirmy when you found out chimpanzees will, from time to time, kill and eat other chimps living among them. To learn one of our nearest evolutionary relatives is also capable of homicide (and even cannibalism) is somehow unsettling on a visceral level.

Little in the natural world, it turns out, is as it seems. Or at least it's not as neat and well-behaved as some wish it was. Life in the wild, as one of my better friends regularly points out, is seldom mild.

Enter the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). If there was ever a species to justifiably attach all the Disney-esque attributes and characteristics of a benevolent Mother Nature, this might be the one. When describing this tiny 12-gram bird, Cornell University's own website even goes so far as to use the word "cute."

This species is one of the most easily recognized birds, acts quite tame around humans, and readily appears at backyard bird feeders. Its eponymous black cap, triangular white face, black throat and bib, gray back and tail, and whitish breast are familiar to birders and non-birders alike. And its call, "chick-a-dee-dee-dee," might be the most recognized bird vocalization in the country.

Making chickadees so endearing is the fact they're non-migratory, they cheerily greet us in our yards even in the depths of winter when avifauna can be quite scarce. Feel like feeding a bird out of your hand? With patience chickadees will readily take food that way.

If a person watches their bird feeders in winter they will note that it's one of the first to arrive in the dim light of morning and among the last to show up at day's end. It is during the dark of night, however, that we find chickadees using a rare survival tool. Usually roosting alone in a tree cavity, they are among a select handful of species known to enter a regulated hypothermic state of torpor, dropping their body temperatures as much as 12 degrees C., thereby saving these little balls of feathers tons of energy; a formidable winter survival skill.

Perhaps equally amazing is this bird's ability to store and later retrieve food. Usually in a bark crevasse or similar location, chickadees will cache individual bits of nutrition, carefully tucking them into place. For up to 28 days, studies have shown, the birds remember where they stuffed these morsels.

For those paying attention, chickadees will often assume the role of nature's siren. They are normally the first to find, then vocalize and warn of a potential predator. Be it a feral cat skulking through the woods or a screech owl nestled quietly in heavy cover, chickadees have a knack for locating it.

Lest we paint a portrait of an untarnished animal, a tiny dose of reality is necessary. Alas, like some Jedi knights, even the black-capped chickadee has a dark side. Despite its diet of mostly bugs, spiders, and seeds, chickadees have been reported to eat the eggs of other bird species thus shattering the fantasy of a harmless innocent.

Nature doesn't judge. Only we do. According to the laws of the wild, the activities of the creatures around us fit snugly into the giant biospheric puzzle of give-and-take; the ebb-and-flow where only the capable survive. It's worked successfully for millions of years without our valuation.

On some level it's cleansing to know there really is no "perfect" out there, that "Hakuna matata" is a popular song and not the way Nature operates. In a way, it allows us to stumble now and again yet keep our heads up. Just as all of our heroes turn out to have chinks in their armor somewhere, even a bird as bubbly, joyous, and charming as a chickadee comes with a blemish. But according to whom? We may think it isn't flawless, but it is.

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