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Blane Klemek column: Game of hunter and hunted reinforces chickadee survival skills

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

I spent the last hours of the last day of Minnesota's 2011 firearms deer hunting season sitting in a portable tree stand high in a spruce hoping for a glimpse or sound of an approaching deer. The weather, refreshingly cold and calm, was perfect for listening and watching. Still, despite my vigilance, no deer revealed themselves for this deer hunter.

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But it mattered not. Deer, while certainly my quarry and focus during times such as these, have never been the only reason I sit waiting quietly in a tree. Indeed, the slowness of time spent in the wild, albeit relentlessly passing, enables me to relish the here and now in my otherwise busy and chaotic world. No where else do my senses become more keenly heightened than during these treasured moments of forest solitude.

My hours of reflection and patience are often rewarded with uncommon observations. On this evening, and for only the third time in my life, I watched in amazement as a northern shrike gave chase to one of my favorite birds, the black-capped chickadee.

Twice before I watched shrikes capture and kill their prey - one a vole, the other a downy woodpecker - but this shrike wasn't so lucky. Each bird, the chickadee and the shrike, the hunted and the hunter, one desperate to escape and the other desperate to eat, was engaged in the epic struggle of survival. It was mesmerizing to watch unfold.

As the chickadee twisted and turned within the branches of a nearby aspen tree, the much larger shrike maneuvered expertly in pursuit, its primary wing feathers slapping against limbs as it followed the evading prey.

Seconds later the chickadee flew directly for the crown of an adjacent spruce tree in a frantic getaway. Flying closely behind, the shrike closed the gap between it and its prey, but the chickadee, once in the dense limbs and foliage of the conifer, found the refuge it was seeking and the strength it needed to outmaneuver the shrike and escape for good.

As I've mentioned, the black-capped chickadee is one of my most beloved birds. The little fellow that avoided becoming a meal for the shrike will undoubtedly remember the experience - an experience that might, perhaps, help it should another similar situation occur in the future. These little year-round resident birds are truly remarkable.

Chickadees are living proof that where size is lacking, energy and ambition are equal substitutes. A chickadee's feet and legs are featherless, yet they go about their daily activities unaffected by bitter cold temperatures. They can do this because of the special way blood is circulated throughout their legs and feet.

And while their feathers do indeed keep them warm on the coldest of days and nights, there is more to the story. Chickadees adapt to what Mother Nature dishes out by modifying their behavior. They seek shelter when the weather takes a turn for the worse. For instance, chickadees often find refuge on the downwind sides of trees, inside birdhouses or natural tree cavities, or even by huddling close to each other to take advantage of mutual body heat.

The chickadee's physiology also plays a role. To survive bitter cold nights, they have the ability to decrease their body temperature, thus their metabolic rate. It's sort of like mini-hibernation. Called torpor, this enables a chickadee to survive cold nights without expending valuable excess energy in maintaining body heat. Keeping warm is hard work and the chickadee solves this problem by "shutting down" during these extreme conditions.

The chickadee is also a wise forager - they know exactly what high-energy foods to eat. These are such things as conifer seeds, animal fat and sunflower seeds. Have you ever noticed that chickadees never seem to sit at your feeders for very long before flying off with a sunflower seed?

Next time you observe chickadees at your feeders, watch what each individual bird does with a seed. Often, instead of immediately feeding on it, the bird hides it. Called "caching" the chickadee does this innately, which guarantees itself a source of food during lean times. Their hiding spots tend to be underneath tree-bark and inside fissures of trees.

No chickadee story would be complete without some mention of those wonderful songs and calls. Over a dozen distinct vocalizations are recognized by not only those ornithologists' who have figured such subtleties out, but by those other chickadees, of course, that communicate with one another on a day-to-day basis.

The most familiar call, the one for which the chickadee is named, is the pleasant sounding chickadee-dee-dee call. Both males and females use the recognizable call to keep the flock together as they move through woodlands in search for food, or as an alarm call when predators or intruders are sighted.

Another favorite song, sung only by males, is the whistled fee-bee. Two variations exist: the loud version and the soft version. The loud fee-bee whistle is thought to be a male's territorial - a sort of advertisement if you will - which seems to suggest, "You're in my woods!" The song's other purpose might also be to establish and sustain pair-bonds between males and females.

The soft, slightly slurred version of the fee-bee song is delivered by both genders. It is thought that the soft fee-bee's meaning depends on the situation it is used. The whistle apparently helps mated pairs coordinate their movements near to each other, a sort of "You-who?" or "Where can I find you?" call.

For sure, the handsome little songbird of the forest is a delight to observe. A pleasant and social bird, its bold yet gentle nature make the black-capped chickadee a favorite for almost anyone. Fragile appearing, though completely capable, chickadees - survivors of shrike attacks and Old Man Winter and much, much more - are wonders of the wild as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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