Written By Tom Foulkrod.

Posted on February 2nd, 2016.

Share it!

I’m pretty sure my grandfather could speak Bird. When he wasn’t gardening or playing music, Grandpa loved to walk and whistle. With grandkids in tow, he would take the old railroad line or walk the apple orchards near his home and call the birds down to us.

I’m pretty sure my grandfather could speak Bird. When he wasn’t gardening or playing music, Grandpa loved to walk and whistle. With grandkids in tow, he would take the old railroad line or walk the apple orchards near his home and call the birds down to us.

There were a couple key spots where he would have us grandkids sit holding handfuls of black oil sunflower seeds. If you could hold still, you would soon feel the sharp but gentle little feet of black-capped chickadees landing on you. They’d peck at the seed a moment, and then they’d take flight again, the force of the air from their wings buffeting your hands.

Thirty-five years later, those childhood experiences remain fresh in my mind. To this day, the chickadee is my favorite bird.

I have my own place now, and I put out suet for birds from October through April. When asked why, I alternately share two reasons: 1) for the birds and 2) as part of a strategy to attract birds that will then eat insect pests off my trees and shrubs. Both are true. But the third reason—maybe the real reason—is that suet brings chickadees, and chickadees bring joy.

3.1.16 image1

Last October the suet brought a chickadee with no tail feathers. It was noticeable, but not readily apparent. For me it was his behavior, not his appearance, that initially gained my notice. When a big chickadee group comes in to feed, they will periodically perch on my window screen to wait their turn on the suet feeder. They cling to the screen with their feet, then use their wings to reposition themselves, all the while hanging sideways.

But Tail-Less was different. He kept his wings folded, and in a crazy, sideways balancing act, he would walk across the screen using only his feet. It later dawned on me that he was able to move this way—a way the other chickadees couldn’t—because he didn’t have a tail.

At Thanksgiving my family visited from Syracuse, and I explained to be on the lookout for this unusual chickadee. Uncle Jimmy, a remote control airplane enthusiast, said a bird without tail feathers would be unable to fly because it couldn't stabilize itself. His statement made perfect sense aerodynamically, but Tail-Less didn't care. He got around just fine. We watched him fly in and away several times throughout the day, observing nothing odd or weak about his flight.

After spending so much time that holiday on the deck and at the window, my family started asking about how "my chickadee" was doing. That's when I got attached.

Sadly, I haven’t seen Tail-Less since around the first week of December. When he first came around, I presumed he’d been wounded somehow—perhaps a narrow escape from a red squirrel—and was on the mend. Since December, though, I now wonder if I actually observed him while his condition was deteriorating. Maybe he was infested with feather lice or mites that ultimately caused his demise. These are serious bird pests that occupy nesting sites, feeding on feathers and destroying them. ‘

Still, I haven’t given up hope on him. If you hear a chickadee song or call note, best clear a path to the windows, because I'll be rushing over to look!

This year, I’m dedicating my bird box cleaning to Tail-Less. Feather pests may or may not have played a part in his life, but the box cleaning gives me a time to remember Tail-less and share his story. My four-year-old nephew helped clean boxes last year, and I’m looking forward to that again. Sharing this story has made me realize an important responsibility I have now. Like my grandfather did for me, it’s now my turn to make sure my nephew learns to love chickadees as much as I do.


Share it!