Short answer: it’s good for business.
Long answer: we’re not sure, but it might have something to do with chickadee politics.
Chickadees are immensely fun birds to have around. (European readers: we’re talking about the family of birds you know as ‘tits’ though that makes us bashful Canadians giggle.) They’re fluffy, have cheerful songs and calls, stick around even when the weather gets super cold, and they tolerate people getting up close. They’re tame.
(Oh and British speakers, when we say tame, you say confiding, which is the same thing. Except for us, “confiding” sounds like the chickadees are sitting down, pouring a cup of tea and telling all their long-hidden family secrets.)
A bird in the hand
Chickadees are one of the few songbirds that will readily eat from your hand—particularly black-capped chickadees. Sunflower seeds are nearly irresistible to them, and in areas where people feed them regularly, they’ll seek you out and practically shake you down for them. They hop from tree to tree, light on benches or even on your camera tripod, and give you that “Am I cute enough yet? Are you gonna feed me now?” look. And feed them we do.
Now, sunflower seeds, suet, and other rich bird treats are really high in energy. And we know that birds, with their high body temperatures and energetic flight, need a lot of calories to get through their days. So relying on the kindness of food-bearing strangers seems like a bit of a no-brainer. Of course they’ll take that stuff out of your hand; it’s free.
Why don’t all birds do it, then?
And yet… so many songbirds won’t come near your hand no matter how hungry they are. Goldfinches, for example, seem to be really fond of sunflower seeds—but won’t come anywhere near you. Siskins are tamer, but I’ve never, ever had one alight on my hand. Have you?
You see, all animals—you and me included—have a comfort zone. All of us will tolerate strange people and things as long as they stay outside a certain radius. And all of us—chickadees, hares, buffalo, your Aunt Judy—get nervous when something strange gets too close.
And when presented with tasty, rewarding opportunity—like a gorgeous pile of free food just sitting there—all animals (us included) are inclined do a kind of risk-reward analysis.
Risks, rewards, and hotdogs
Picture it: a crow spots a hotdog in the middle of a busy lane of traffic. Now, it may not be thinking with words the way you and I might, but the thought pattern is probably something like this: “Wow, hotdog. Oh no, speeding cars. Hmm spaces between speeding cars. How long spaces? How fast me? What chance getting hot dog? What chance getting flattened?” And within the space of a second or two, the analysis is complete and the crow either takes its chances or passes the opportunity by.
Chickadees, more than other songbirds, have done that kind of risk-reward analysis around the idea of seizing sunflower seeds from people’s hands. And obviously, many of them have decided it’s totally worth it. Worth it—even though a nasty human could potentially grab them or hurt them, right there in their open hand, right?
And while we don’t know exactly what factors make a chickadees more confident than other songbirds, we can look at what makes them different from the shy ones.
Chickadees, even without people around, are adaptable. They are comfy in different types of forests, along rivers, in rural areas—anywhere there’s a bit of tree cover. They can eat a wide variety of foods, too. While their main diet is the eggs and larvae of moths and other insects, they’re good with berries, seeds, and the fat off of carcasses, believe it or not.
As generalists, they are open to a lot of opportunities, including being fed. A sunflower seed in the hand is not a big stretch for a bird that eats seed heads off wildflowers. Generalists are likely to be constantly on the lookout for new ways of gathering energy—whereas a more specialized bird, like a flycatcher, just isn’t able to branch out into begging from people.
They’re smart as hell
Chickadees have phenomenal memories. When you hand them a seed, they might just chow down on it… or they might just as likely take off and wedge that seed into a hiding place and remember exactly where they put it. Chickadees can recall the location of hundreds of stored seeds, weeks or months after they’ve stored them. The part of their brain responsible for that kind of memory is larger than other songbirds of a comparable size, and it bulks up in seed-caching season.
And their cousin the blue tit (hee sorry) made itself famous in the early 20th century by figuring out how to peck into milk bottles. Both blue tits and Eurasian robins got into the habit of sipping cream off milk bottles that were delivered to homes back in the day, but when the milk industry got wise and capped bottles with firm foil lids, only the blue tits were able to figure out how to pierce them. Smart little birds.
And speaking of smart, new studies on great tits show that they transmit knowledge culturally. It’s wild stuff.
The tame ones may have less to lose
Chickadees have a pecking order; there are high-status ones and low-status ones in any group (kind of like people, really.) Here’s the thing: when a threat passes by, like a Cooper’s hawk, all the chickadees freeze. But low-status birds are first to break the freeze. Low-status birds take more risks than high-status ones, and high-status chickadees tend to avoid risky behaviour in general. Why? Because they can afford to. High-status birds have bigger, better territories, with better access to resources like food and shelter.
Low-status chickadees, with poorer prospects, might just be more inclined to beg—even when that begging is risky. Next time you feed chickadees, take note of which ones come to your hand first—and which ones swoop in to chase them off. It may just be the low-status ones taking that first risk, and the high-status ones swooping in once they know it’s safe.
So next time you feed chickadees in the park, take a good long look at that beautiful little creature. Inside that tiny bird head is a remarkable brain assessing risk, planning hiding places for the food, remembering locations of items long hidden, and keeping an eye out for aggression from higher-status neighbours.
Do you enjoy this kind of bird story? I write one every week.
Sign up for Bird Friday newsletters. There’s no marketing spam; it’s all birds all the time. We never sell our mailing lists, and you can unsubscribe any time.