“All that is round invites a caress,” writes Gaston Bachelard, and the chickadee is the embodiment of caressable roundness. With its big domed head, tiny bill, and widely-spaced eyes, he is the teddy bear of the avian world. Who can resist that baby-like charm? Grown men have been known to stand for hours, hoping that a chickadee will consent to pick a seed out of their outstretched hand.
Everything about a chickadee–including his mating call: hey sweetie!–is sweet. I, along with every other pandemic prisoner depending for company and entertainment on the goings on at the feeder, am a sucker for that sweetness, so I feed them seeds and suet, and make sure that the bird bath stays unfrozen even in sub-zero weather. If only I could know every one of their tiny hearts’ desires, I would try to fulfill them, all in the hope that in return they would think of me as their friend.
But last week I listened to a lecture by the ornithologist David Hof , Ph.D. about the emotional lives of these birds, and got a shock. I’m sorry to say that chickadees are, by human standards, anything but sweet. In fact, you could say that a chickadee is a wolf in bird’s clothing, except that wolves are a lot nicer.
I learned from Dr. Hof that chickadee society is as hierarchical as the most rigid caste system. Worse, all chickadee males outrank all females, with the lowliest male able to shoo even the alpha female away from the feeder, no matter that she is married to the alpha male. Like many birds, a male chickadee sings to keep other males out of his territory and away from his mate, but he does not apply the same standards to himself: if he covets his neighbor’s wife, he sneaks into his neighbor’s tree and has his way with her.
I was not exactly shocked by this. I knew from watching endless nature documentaries that many animals, including the most endearing, form rigid hierarchies, fight over mates and territory, and commit adultery. A lustful nature is not necessarily incompatible with sweetness. But my remaining illusions were shattered when Dr. Hof related that, after spending hundreds of hours capturing, banding, and observing a tribe of chickadees, he had found one in the act of murdering a rival– a brutal attack in which the beta bird of the flock went on pecking savagely at the alpha long after the latter had expired (the widow fluttered off, but I shudder to think of the marriage that she was later forced to endure).
It’s not fair, I realize, to hold chickadees to higher standards than other birds. Among eagles, the biggest chick in the nest usually kills one or more of its brethren, and female eagles have been known to kill their mates. But eagles look like frowning, angry old men, with their flat heads, deep-set eyes, and enormous, downward curving beaks, so we are not surprised to hear of eagle cruelty. But the cruelty of chickadees feels like a betrayal, their fluffy adorableness a feint designed to take advantage of our good nature.
Of course, the chickadees can’t help it, anymore than the male lion can help killing his rival’s cubs when he takes over a pride, or the stags can help giving each other concussions in their attempts to sire the next generation of fawns. Wolves are merciless towards strange wolves who wander into their territory. Chimpanzees bicker for dominance, and kill individuals from other groups.
But chimpanzees, wolves, stags, lions, and chickadees are nothing more than furry or feathered envelopes engineered to protect the real culprits: the implacable genes that will stop at nothing to keep themselves going. As Darwin proved, the individual is expendable; it’s the species that counts. Which, when I think about it, is beyond depressing, but at least it makes it possible for me to look more charitably on the chickadee, and find it in my heart to forgive him.