Monday, May 24, 2010

Bird Walking with Becky Olsen

One of the long-lasting effects from the last Staff Appreciation Day were the extra lunch-hour workshop sessions held over the year. One such was the Bird Walk led by Becky Olsen from Financial Services about two weeks ago. She's an experienced, excellent and enthusiastic birder who has been keeping an eagle (sorry) eye on birds in, around or flying over campus for fifteen years or so. She told us, as we gathered on the north patio of the commons, that she's seen over 100 different species of birds on campus during those years including resident birds, temporarily resident (wintering over or here for the breeding season) and migratory birds, aka "fly-overs." She's also been a long-time volunteer at the Bird Rescue Center for Sonoma County.

Becky led our merry (though shhh! quiet!) band of five from the commons along the paved path toward the creek. We stopped by the palm trees near the pond, looking for a hooded oriole, a bright yellow bird that I'd never seen before and didn't then either. (But I did on the walk back, thanks, Becky!) Just before the walking bridge, we took a jog to the west to watch a family of chickadees flit around some low bushes -- actually, the parents flitted around while the three or four kids (they all moved too fast to be counted) clutched skinny twigs and begged: dee, dee, dee, dee!

Chestnut-backed chickadees (Poecile rufescens) are plucky year round residents, living, breeding and raising their kids in the heart of Wine Country and on our campus. They are active, inquisitive, chattery, amusing little critters, about 4.5 inches long on a good day, feeding on insects when they can get them and seeds when they can't. In the fall, they'll cache seeds, storing them against the meager fare of winter. It's been estimated that one chickadee can hide and remember up to a hundred thousand seeds in a season. Bird brain indeed! I can barely remember where my 10 keys are at any given time and they're all on the same ring.

During the fall and winter, when chickadees cache and retrieve seeds, the hippocampus of their little birdy-brains expands; in spring and summer, when they no longer need that info, it shrinks down to normal. Certainly gives credance to the motto "use it or lose it," as it applies to brains. Time to break out the crossword and jigsaw puzzles, folks, take up a new language, find that guitar in the back of the closet and take lessons again.

There are seven species of chickadees in North America: Black-capped, Carolina, Mountain, Boreal, Mexican, Grey-headed and our Chestnut-backed, with little overlap in territories. Most are various arrangements of grey, black, buff, russet-red and white. Ours sports a dapper chestnut-colored back and flanks, appearing at times to wear a very dashing suit coat with grey sleeves, or perhaps a tasteful russet-hued vest for the holidays. With strong legs and feet, chickadees often hang upside down as they forage, which is somehow quite endearing. They are perching birds (passerines) and quite social in nature, existing in loose flocks of several chickadee families, as well as in mixed foraging flocks composed of warblers or bushtits. They often share territory with downy woodpeckers and nuthatches. But for all their tiny size, they are spunky and not easily intimidated; they've been known to mob predators such as owls or hawks.

Chickadees are cavity-nesters, often commandeering old woodpecker holes in trees. As our small birding band backtracked east and wandered along the creek toward the butterfly garden, Becky pointed out a snag -- an old, mostly leafless, tree trunk leaning over the creek. Near the top was a nice-sized round hole and within moments, a chickadee had flown into it and then after a bit popped out, flying off immediately. "Babies are still in there," Becky said, "hungry babies." Within the hole, there might be a nest similar to the photo below (courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), moss and strips of bark providing structural support on the outside, soft animal fur, hair and even feathers, providing coziness on the inside.

Fascinating to think that while we're busy in our offices and class rooms, contemplating numbers and philosophies, examining theories and texts, balancing budgets and signing contracts, these little chickadee families are thriving in the bushes and trees along our fringes, hatching and raising their youngsters, teaching them how to find tasty bugs and save seeds, how to evade predators, how to sing, find a mate and thrive.

Everywhere you look, brains are working, critters are learning.

More links for thought:

Madrone Audubon Society
Hiding seeds, Black-capped Chickadees
Hippocampus and the Chickadee
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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