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FEATHER TALK
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE

I found a chickadee feather in my backyard. Technically, it was a primary or flight (wing) feather. It was just one feather and a well-worn one at that. I ruled out a predator attack and a dead bird. Just as we shed hair, birds molt
feathers. I provide chickadee nesting boxes in my yard and also feed black oil sunflower seeds, so the chickadees use my yard all year long.

These little bundles of energy are one of my favorite birds. Chickadees, along with titmice, belong to the bird family called Paridae. There are 10 North American relatives and many more worldwide. I once tried to convince my wife to buy a personalized license plate saying “ICIDID.” She convinced me that no one could decode these letters to say “I watch (see) the Paridae bird family.”

The Black-capped Chickadee is the most common in my yard, but occasionally Mountain Chickadees pay a visit. I think my feather is from a Black-capped Chickadee.

Black-capped Chickadees are remarkably tough little birds. They can over-winter in the harshest of climates. Chickadees resist the effects of cold weather by eating a high energy winter diet (seeds), having a thick layer of feathers for insulation and roosting in cavities where temperatures are moderated and the wind doesn’t blow. They also have the ability to go into a regulated hypothermia (hibernation) on cold nights. Their normal daytime body temperature approaches 108 degrees F, but their night-time temperature often falls 12-15 degrees lower, thus conserving almost 25 percent of their hourly heat loss.

As I stand in my backyard holding the tiny feather, a chickadee flies to my feeder, quickly grabs a sunflower seed and heads for a nearby tree limb. I notice a small gap in the feathers of the left wing – yes, I’m either holding a feather this bird molted, or my active imagination has passed the edge of reality. I’m amazed at the entertainment this 1/3 ounce bird provides. So I stand holding the feather, listening to the constant chatter of a tiny, mostly black and white bird. I also watch him/her hold a tiny sunflower seed between its tiny black feet and vigorously peck at it until the goody is extracted and swallowed.

My mind wanders off on a new subject - I wonder how many feathers are molted each year by the millions of North American birds. The network of neurons in my mind flips to a thought of the hundreds of thousands of Eared Grebes molting and re-growing feathers in the Great Salt Lake every fall. Where do all of those feathers go?


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