By Cal Cumin/Last Best News

Chief Plenty Coups, last of the great Crow chiefs, in battle wore the legs and feet of the chickadee braided in the long black hair behind his ear.

Plenty Coups, photographed by Edward S. Curtis
Plenty Coups, photographed by Edward S. Curtis

After listening to an early vision received by this future chief, the Crow Elders told Plenty Coups, “The chickadee is your medicine. We must be wise like the chickadee.” And he honored this tiny bird throughout his life. Power from and communication between species is something most people don’t believe in now—or even try to understand.

I think, however, that a lot people wish their pets could speak or wish they could understand what their dog or horse is trying to say. I remember once back when the Plenty Coups Museum was in its more derelict years I went out a January-bright sunny day to try to meditate on Arrow Creek, as the chief had often done. (I had been reading his biography, originally titled simply “American.”) It was one of those sleepy winter days of dry cold and low, eye-watering sun, and the water in the small creek was frozen.

I sat on a spot of dry grass, crossed my legs, and did my best meditation; I wasn’t too successful. However, later, as I walked back through the deserted yard of Plenty Coups’ old house to the parking lot, a chickadee joined me, close over my right shoulder, pacing me as it were from branch to branch, and providing a steady, chattering monologue.

I thought of the old and powerful chief and realized something was communicating with me. It excited me. I felt honored but frustrated that I didn’t understand more.

Today as I walk to the river across Norm’s Island, the smell of sugar beet processing drifts in the late winter air, along with a humidity missing in the dry crunch of dead winter. The sun is still low, but the light is already hours longer than December.

The day is quiet with soft background noises of cars crossing Blue Creek Bridge, the squawk of some of Billings’ extensive crow population passing over, and, nearby, the slightly burred chirping of chickadees. I smile, knowing this small member of the titmice family is never still; when they’re not flying, they hop—never walking—and when neither flying or hopping they’re clinging to or hanging upside down from branches with specialized leg muscles.

The Crows, the Absáaloke, call the chickadee she-lish-ga. Said to have one of the most complicated social structures of any feeder bird, the chickadee also has a large vocabulary of calls—more than 15 of them. The distinguishing vocalization chick-a-dee-dee is, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, one of the most complex vocalizations in the animal kingdom.

The male’s fee-bee call in spring is separated by one complete note (that’s more than I learned about music in all of high school and college). Chickadees lay their eggs between mid-April and early July, beginning one to two days after the nest is finished. The female lays one egg per day, in the morning, before coffee; they have one brood per season, and they do not reuse old nest sites.

Like grizzlies, chickadees are omnivorous, but so light you could mail three of them for the price of a first-class stamp. When it falls below 10 degrees, they slow their metabolism and do a form of hibernation. During such weather, chickadees need 20 times more food than in the summer, and their survival rate doubles when they have access to bird feeders. They flock in winter to protect their feeding ground—usually an area of about 20 acres, and the pattern of flocking is a popular subject of many bird researchers and, probably, chaos theorists.

Enough feather trivia. As to being wise as noted by the Crow Elders, the chickadee relies on the memory of food caches it made in the warm seasons. Scientists have determined that the hippocampus (the portion of the forebrain critical for memory formation/storage and spatial learning) of the chickadee is about three times larger than that of non-food storers.

Most small birds enter kind of a catatonic state when taken by hawks or cats. I recently saw a chickadee grabbed by a sharp-shinned hawk. The frightened—and probably angry—little bird didn’t give up; in the talons of the fierce predator it screamed all the way up and out of hearing.

Strong medicine befitting this special Montana bird—and a great chief.