This essay about the chickadee was originally published as part of “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” in the June/July issue of Cottage Life.
Chickadees are so abundant at backyard feeders and neighbourhood parks across Canada, it’s easy to forget that they are wild animals that live in almost every treed habitat in our country. Perhaps you’ve even seen one and thought, It’s just a chickadee. It’s a common bird, but that familiar sight is also an extraordinary one. Not only are chickadees an animal we can get close to, they are so emblematic of what it takes to thrive here that they deserve a new title: Canada’s National Animal.
Let’s start up close, because we can bond with chickadees. They make eye contact, and if you can whistle, you can have a conversation with one; they will respond. As children, we learn to sing with them, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” And if we’re patient, they will come to our hands.
Chickadees are the central characters in my earliest wildlife memories. As a kid, I spent winter afternoons in our local forest holding out handfuls of sunflower seeds and willing them to come. I would stand until my fingers froze and my outstretched arm shook from the effort. Chickadees taught me the patience and stillness I would need when I became a guide and naturalist later in life, and I have never tired of them. As an adult, I return to the same forest, still waiting to feel the pinpricks of their tiny nails against my cold fingers.
By feeding chickadees healthy seeds, we can deepen our connection with them and help them to survive the winter and improve their reproductive success. Yet they don’t become dependent on us—they never forget how to forage for themselves. Chickadees don’t migrate. They can handle winter—an essential trait for a national animal—and though they only weigh as much as two quarters, they can induce a controlled state of hypothermia to survive the cold nights. By morning, they’ll be flitting around again, drinking fresh water from melting icicles.
While these birds are charismatic and approachable, they’re also tough enough to meet the demands of Canada’s huge and wide-ranging habitats. They have some nifty adaptations to help with this: their legs are so strong that they can feed hanging upside down; they have extraordinary spatial memory for the food that they cache; and they use at least 16 different vocalizations including the intense “high zee” which warns of predators so effectively that other species of birds also listen and react. Like many songbirds, chickadees are short-lived (they rarely see their fourth birthday) and experience about 50 per cent mortality in their first year. One of their main strategies to survive the hardships of their short lives is the very thing that makes them so remarkable: curiosity. You only have to watch a chickadee for half an hour to see this for yourself. They never stop learning, and that—more than any other trait—is what makes them my top choice for Canada. They are always exploring. This makes them more than an animal we can learn about; it makes them a companion we can learn from.
Zoom out from the cute little bird at your feeder and look at a map of Canada. You’ll find chickadees everywhere, in every province and territory: in Haida Gwaii, the Arctic coast, the fjords of Labrador, southwestern Nunavut, and downtown Toronto. We have five species: black-capped, mountain, gray-headed, boreal, and chestnut-backed. Between them, they have evolved to live in every major forest type in our country. They are all cavity nesters and partially dependent on tree seeds for winter forage, but they push those habitat requirements to the limit: some live at high elevations, others on the edges of the tundra.
So we might get to know chickadees for how common they are—our companion in nature, our national bird in the hand—but our moments with them might also be the closest encounters we will ever have with a wild animal. When you look one in the eye, you will see tenacity, intelligence, and poise— and an animal that knows our country better than we do.
Facts & Figures
How do you like my outfit? As with most birds that brave Canadian winters, chickadees can fluff out their feathers and trap a layer of insulating air around their bodies.
A tall tale: Chickadees have long legs—longer than other perching birds.
Nothing says love like bugs: Courting male chickadees present females with large insects—protein, yum!—in order to woo them.
Read more essays from “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” to read more of our favourite writers making the case for their pick for the most Canadian animal in the June/July 2021 issue of Cottage Life.