Devotion for Second Week of Lent 2023
Pastor Karen Crawford
First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY
Pastor Karen sharing her Lenten Devotion, The Chickadee!:
“In Walden wood the chickadee
Runs round the pine and maple tree
Intent on insect slaughter:
O tufted entomologist!
Devour as many as you list,
Then drink in Walden water.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Fragments on Nature and Life
My window is open in my office, overlooking my front yard. And though I cannot see any birds from this view, I can surely hear them. One of my favorites is calling right now, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!”
I can listen to these sweet songbirds all day long and never get tired of their voices, especially in this noisy environment of our Long Island suburb; traffic, planes, and trains roar by at all hours of the day and night. But when the sun rises, the chickadee is one of the first birds, along with the dark-eyed juncos, to visit the bush by my back door and the tube feeder beside it.
My name is Karen Crawford. I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY. I live in St. James with my husband and one of our sons, a cat named Liam, and a toy poodle named Minnie. Throughout Lent, I am posting weekly devotions to inspire my flock to joy and wonder about God’s Amazing Creation, as part of a doctor of ministry project with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Their full name is “Black capped chickadee,” and, unlike some birds, they look and sound like their name. They range in size from 4 ½ inches to just under 6 inches, with the males slightly larger and longer than females. Also, unlike other birds, the males and females have the same color patterns. The male Chickadee isn’t flashier than the female. In addition to the black cap, they have a kind of black bib and short beak. Their bodies are white, rusty brown, and grey, with a slate gray tail.
I was talking to my friend, Peg, the other day about how much I like the Black-capped chickadees, but I am not sure if I also have Carolina chickadees, which look like the Black-capped, but are smaller. My birds look like teeny tiny balls! The Carolina Chickadees’ range includes our area but doesn’t go as far north as the Black-capped chickadees. The most obvious difference between the two species is that the Black-capped chickadees have white on their wings.
Scientists have been seriously studying the songs and calls of Chickadees since the mid 1970s. They have identified 13 distinct types of vocalizations that communicate different kinds of information. This information includes the “pecking order” of the birds, says writer Li Shen in the May 11, 2009 story, “Chickadees: What They Say and Why They Say It” at the Northern Woodlands website. “For example, the call that sounds approximately like “t-seedl-deet” is given by a bird higher in the order to warn off a lower-status bird. It would mean something like, ‘Buzz off! or ‘This is MY food!’ The chatter call, a rapid “chi-chi-chi-chi,” is given by the dominant bird, when it has driven off a subordinate, as if it were saying, ‘That’ll teach you!’ A short “czeet” whistle may serve to keep other members of a flock together while a particular bird is foraging—as if it were saying, ‘Here I am.’
Li Shen goes on, “Other calls respond to danger. The high ‘zee’ warns of a fast-approaching predator, while the familiar ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ is used for a more stationary predator. Ornithologists have determined that the number of ‘dees’ increases in proportion to the threat. Thus, a chickadee will deliver perhaps five ‘dees’ when threatened by a large slow-moving predator bird, but as many as 23 ‘dees’ when endangered by smaller, quick and agile birds. The “chickadee-dee” call is used by chickadees as they gang up to scold a predator.”
This tells me that this tiny, adorable bird is bold and courageous to be willing to scold larger predators.
The songs and calls and cute appearance of these birds have inspired writers of prose and poetry, such as Hilda Conkling’s “Chickadee.”
The chickadee in the appletree
Talks all the time very gently.
He makes me sleepy.
I rock away to the sea-lights.
Far off I hear him talking
The way smooth bright pebbles
Drop into water . . .
Chick-a-dee-dee-dee . . .
The Black-capped chickadee is the state bird of Maine and Massachusetts and the provincial bird of New Brunswick.
In 2014, the Black-capped chickadee was named the official bird of Vancouver for 2015. In 2022 the Black-capped chickadee was named the official bird of Calgary, Alberta. The bird is prominently featured on the standard Maine license plate, as well as welcome signs on major roadways in Massachusetts.
Although I am not an old movie expert, I do faintly recall a 1940 movie called, “My Little Chickadee,” a Western, staring Mae West and W.C. Fields. If I remember correctly, this was his nickname for Mae, who plays a singer from Chicago named Miss Flower Belle Lee. She is traveling on a stagecoach when she and other passengers are held up by a masked bandit. Mae has a fling with him and ends up being hauled before a judge. Wikipedia tells the story like this. “Offended by her indifferent manner, the judge asks angrily, ‘Young lady, are you trying to show contempt for this court?’ She answers, “No, I’m doing my best to hide it!'” She’s then run out of town and hops a train to Greasewood City, where it picks up conman W.C.Fields. He convinces her to marry him, persuading her that he is rich, when he really isn’t. I wonder if Fields’ character understands how bold and courageous Chickadees are when he calls Mae West, “My Little Chickadee”? Probably not. Knowing Mae West to be bold, brave, funny, saucy, and clever, she plays the Chickadee part 100% accurately.
Chickadees stay with us year-round. They are permanent residents, who get to know their habitats and wildlife and human neighbors. When I go out to fill my feeders, at least one Chickadee stays nearby to eat or watch from a bush while I am pouring seed into the hoppers. I think he or she is anticipating how the meal will taste—and they don’t want to be late for the meal or share it with another hungry bird or squirrel. It amuses me how they take one sunflower seed from the feeder, quickly fly back with it into the bush to hammer it and eat it, and then return to the feeder for another. Black- oiled sunflower seeds seem to be their favorite, but they also love insects, especially caterpillars, and berries.
It’s remarkable the way that Chickadees, like squirrels, will bury their uneaten food in various sites to save for later. They bury their food under “bark, dead leaves, clusters of conifer needles, or in a knothole” in a tree. (Wikipedia) Miraculously, unlike the squirrels, they have a long memory of where they have hidden their stashes. They go back and dig them up and eat them later.
Chickadees are not exclusive to their kind. They will flock with other birds, such as the tufted titmice, warblers, and nuthatches. One of the most unusual things about them is that they are able to withstand the cold temperatures of winter by lowering their own body temperatures as much as 12 degrees Celsius to conserve energy.
I have heard from various sources that Chickadees may be taught to eat from our hands. A lady on Youtube makes her own suet with peanut butter, corn meal, lard, and sunflower seeds, and we watch as a Chickadee feeds from a ball of suet in her outstretched hand. I confess, I am not ready to hand feed the birds. I am not sure that I am ready to be that up close and personal with those sharp beaks or to encourage the birds to chase after me for food.
But knowing this about Chickadees, how they may be tamed and taught, makes me admire them even more and praise the God who created them.
I have this feeling, when they are watching me fill up the feeders, that they trust me and that maybe they WOULD eat right out of my hand, if I had a ball of homemade suet with peanut butter to offer them. I provide food for them every day, no matter the weather, to supplement what they can find in nature. I bundle up with boots and coat and head out the back door, even when it rains or snows. I come out with fresh fare—pouring the leftovers onto the ground for the doves and squirrels and restocking with new. I have heard that mold can grow on soggy seed and this can be toxic to birds. And believe me, these birds know the difference between stale, wet seed and fresh out of the bag seed. Like human beings, they have their preferences.
When I think of how the Chickadee trusts me, I think of what a big responsibility we have as human beings to gently care for our wild bird neighbors and to consider their needs, as well as our own. But didn’t the Lord God give that responsibility to the first human beings when God Created the Garden and created man to till it and keep it? With every tree that is cut down and shrubs, vines and brambles removed, we are altering their habitat. We do this on Long Island, without thinking how it might affect the wildlife. We are all about pretty, tidy green lawns. Everything has to be perfect! I see heavy equipment in the fall and spring, with crews of lawn workers clearing off my neighbors’ tall trees and overgrowth, and reseeding the grass. In a matter of days, the homeowners have what appears to be a brand new, manicured lawn, free of weeds and vines. When we remove that overgrowth, we are taking away the homes, nesting and perching places, and food sources for many creatures, such as the friendly Chickadee. This is a good reminder that what people see as “perfect” may not be God’s intention for the Good Creation God has made. Let that encourage you when you talk yourself out of pulling weeds or blowing away the dead leaves, full of nice insects for our feathered friends to eat.
And I think of how God wants us to trust, like the Chickadee, the One who provides for all our needs—body, mind, and soul–every day. There’s nowhere we can go to flee from God’s presence! During this Lenten season, I hope you will recall that God doesn’t want us to be afraid when we approach our Heavenly Parent in prayer. God wants to know us, just as we are, with all our strong personalities and sauciness like Mae West. And God wants to be known by us! Our sins have been forgiven! Our Good Shepherd has claimed us as His sheep through the cross and baptism.
God wants to hear everything—all of our many unique calls and songs—and assure us that we are safe, firmly in the grasp of the Master’s hand in this world and in the life to come. Nothing we can do can put us in danger of being separated from the One who loves with an everlasting, unconditional love.
We are forever God’s little Chickadees.
Will you pray with me? Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for the marvelous Chickadee, with its adorable appearance that inspires poetry and cinema, its brilliant calls and songs, which lift our spirits throughout these winter days. Thank you for the opportunity to feed the hungry Chickadees and the way they teach us about trusting the source of our daily nourishment, for body, mind and soul. You alone are our God, our Provider and Protector. Thank you for your Word and Spirit that guide and strengthen us each day and for your everlasting, unconditional love. Amen.