On Fearlessness, or Chickadees

On Fearlessness, or Chickadees

This week’s Helpers cartoon focuses on the fearless chickadee.

I used to live in a little house on a remote dirt road. At that house, there was a wooden post cover in the center of the yard that had a perfect little round hole in the top and a sheltered space within. As I watched from inside the house, I noticed that a chickadee was flying in and out of that little chickadee-sized hole carrying bugs and bits of straw and all kinds of little fluffy things. Turns out, he had his baby chickadees nesting in there, as was shortly confirmed with a quick trip out to peer carefully into the hole at the little fluffy heads and hungry mouths, silently and sweetly bunched together. In and out Father and Mother Chickadee went, while the four little fluffs waited inside. For a moment upon each departure, they would stand straddling the entrance, giving the world one furious once-over, as if to say, I’m going to be right back so don’t even think about it. And nothing did.

I have always loved the Chickadee (and imagine my delight upon discovering that it is our state bird here in Massachusetts). I love her winsomeness, her scrappy black cap and tiny fury, but most of all I love her fearlessness. I once went for a walk in the woods with a naturalist friend and was amazed at how chickadees would land on our outstretched hands to eat seeds from our palms. These were wild birds, not tame– and I can’t imagine a tame chickadee, anyway. It was certainly magical thinking but during some of the more difficult times– alone at home and isolated with my little children, powering through my painful divorce, beset with worry over life and money and academic careers and — now– disease and disaster– I go back out into the woods and hold out my hands. Without fail, if I wait long enough, the chickadees come. I want to believe that they are reminding me that, as our own blessed Emily Dickinson said, “hope is the thing with feathers.”

And hope and fearlessness are related. They call this little bird the Fearless Chickadee not because she embodies a kind of sense-deaf bravado we might associate with some stripes of human “fearlessness”, but because she is ferocious in her hope. Shakespeare would have said that, “though she be but little, she is fierce” and I would say she embodies Atticus Finch’s admonition that to be fearless is to have courage, and that can be the courage of hope, the courage of tenacity, the courage of humility, and of carrying on even when the world seems to be a very dark place. He said, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Chickadees know that they are small and vulnerable and the winter is long and dark but they carry on, full stop. To be an overwintering creature made of feathers and air weighing scarcely 12 grams is the epitome of “knowing you’re licked before you begin” but she lands on my hand anyway. Chickadees aren’t stupid: Some of nature’s smartest birds, they are known to have excellent memories— outwitting snakes and other predators, cleverly hiding their food stores–they can remember thousands upon thousands of hiding places–and building their burrows in such a way that only they can enter. Linguistically complex, even other unrelated species of birds listen to and understand their alarm calls. Everyone heeds the Chickadee. They know what must be done and they do it, even though the odds seem stacked against them.

So, remember the Chickadee and persevere. Be brave. Have courage. Even as we are surrounded and led by cowardice, venality, and wickedness, good people continue to do good and brighter days are coming. Tyrants are brought down. Kindness is power. Small is mighty. Hope is the thing with feathers. We can do this. Get it done.

4 thoughts on “On Fearlessness, or Chickadees”

  • Hi, Sally–I just saw your stuff in the latest Grinnell Magazine and decided to have a look at your website. Wonderful! I was a Grinnell English major too–graduated in ’63–and live in VT. My best, Mary

  • Thank-you for the beautiful cartoon, article, perspective and reminders. The next time the chickadees are flitting around me and eating from my hand I’m going to remember this and allow them to activate my own courage and perseverance.

    • Thank you so much, Michele! I believe the little chickadees, fearless and powerful even in their smallness, should give us hope in our challenging times. <3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *