In A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949), Leopold described how each year he and his family, over the course of the winter, banded birds they trapped on their farm. The records of banded birds that ventured back into the traps over the years provided life histories of the winged inhabitants of this land. As he wrote,
. . . to the old-timer the banding of new birds becomes merely pleasant routine; the real thrill lies in the recapture of some bird banded long ago, some bird whose age, adventures, and previous condition of appetite are perhaps better known to you than to the bird himself.
Chickadee 65290 and six other chickadees tagged in 1937 comprised the band of brothers and sisters of the “class of 1937.”
Here is a black-capped chickadee, captured in a photo taken by Danielle Langlois. I assume that this is the species of chickadee banded by Leopold. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that this bird is “almost universally considered ‘cute’.” Too true.
Over the next several years 65290 proved himself to be a survivor. Leopold characterized 65290’s ability to endure as his “extraordinary capacity for living,” somehow greater in this bird than that of his brothers and sisters who fell to the wayside. The attrition rate of the seven members of the class of 1937 was high. Over half disappeared by the next winter, leaving but three. Another was lost by the third winter. 65290 appeared the fifth winter, the sole representative of the chickadees born in 1937, and never reappeared again.
The hold on life of 65290 became even more startling when Leopold considered that, of the total number of chickadees banded during the entire decade (97), apparently only this single bird experienced a fifth winter. The stark reality of the life of a chickadee is embodied in these statistics – 69% vanished sometime before their second winter and another 20% were lost before their third.
He pondered why life is so nasty, brutish, and short for the chickadee, a bird whose size means it has few enemies.
That whimsical fellow called Evolution, . . . , tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat.The villain in the piece? The weather, at times delivering lethal punches of shifting winds, rain, and sudden drops in temperature, is “the only killer so devoid of both humor and dimension as to kill a chickadee.” Leopold acknowledged that, over time, wise choices may have graced the life of this particular bird, particularly that of finding dry shelter from the storm, shelter that shielded a tiny body from all sides, keeping any abrupt shift in wind direction from spelling death during the night.
In closing, Leopold offered a kind of prayer:
65290 has long since gone to his reward. I hope that in his new woods, great oaks full of ants’ eggs keep falling all day long, with never a wind to ruffle his composure or take the edge off his appetite. And I hope that he still wears my band.
Credit for Photograph
The photograph above of a chickadee is reproduced under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. It is available on the web at this link.