Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Chickadee Gate

Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and American Goldfinch
visit the gate feeder later in the spring
Some years ago I came up with a method of luring migrating warblers to a place where they can be readily seen and perhaps even photographed. Warblers are not seed eating birds, but many members of the mixed foraging flocks that they travel with are, so by introducing a minor feeding station into just the right spot, I hoped to attract the chickadee led flocks to a place where they could be observed. In the area that I chose, the forest corridor narrows like the thin part of an hourglass. This was important because these flocks, which prefer to stay in woods, would naturally be funneled through here. A feeder would encourage Chickadees to come in close and hopefully, when they did, they’d bring their interesting fellow travelers with them. I decided to use hulled sunflower seed in order to really get the Chickadees’ attention. Just a handful of seed left on 3 fence posts was enough to get the ball rolling. I would replenish the supply whenever I went through that area. It didn't take long for word to get out. It never does in the Black-capped Chickadee community. This precocious species is always the first one to discover a new food supply. 

A migrant Bay-breasted Warbler comes by the feeder area
Shaking hands with a Chickadee
This was envisioned as a late summer to mid-fall activity –for that's when the most migrants band together into foraging flocks. The method worked reasonably well: Chickadees and their seed eating allies quickly made a habit of coming to the fencepost feeders. And sure enough, they brought with them an impressive and ever-changing cast of migrant warblers and vireos. Undoubtedly, I will talk about the diversity of migrant songbirds that came to the Chickadee Gate in a future blog post; my focus now will be on the unintended consequence of this endeavor.

Brown Thrasher comes for a peanut
The main unintended consequence was that I instantly became immensely popular with dozens of resident Chickadees. To them I was the ice cream man –but without the annoying music.  They would see me coming from hundreds of yards away –each member of the group calling frantically and coaxing me along to the feeder area. They escorted me for such a long distance that I began providing the impatient fellows with snacks along the way. I’d put some seed on tree stumps and on fence posts along the trail side. Before I knew it, they were landing in my hands, on my hat, on my shoulder and even on my camera. It was ridiculous. What began as a fall activity, expanded into a winter activity –was held over as a spring activity and, why not, it was extended into the summer. It was now an institution and they wouldn’t let me stop doing it. I had to carry their seed with me at all times or else they would be extremely disappointed –and we couldn’t have that!

The advantages of having a long tongue
I did make a few adaptations to this institution. No longer would I encourage the birds to land on me. I had to. It had gotten so that a few of them would make a mad dash for my head as soon as they saw me. This didn’t faze me, but I could easily imagine someone else swatting at the unexpected bird-shaped projectile. So instead of feeding them everywhere, I scaled it back to just 4 places including the original fence posts. That particular place has been dubbed the "Chickadee Gate", since the fence posts hold in place a metal gate.
It’s now been at least 6 years, and I visit the gate at least twice a day. These days I always find a gaggle of winter residents waiting to meet me there. It’s still mostly Chickadees, but it’s also Cardinals, Tree Sparrows, Juncos, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and many others.

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