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Small But Mighty: Of Chickadees and Chief Plenty Coups

A black capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) perching on winter berries.
suefeldberg/Getty Images/iStockphoto
A black capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) perching on winter berries.

Black-capped Chickadees are supremely adaptive birds, and are highly regarded by rural, urban and suburban human residents who share their habitat. In the Northern Rockies, chickadees remain spiritually and culturally significant to Crow Native Americans, most notably for their last traditional tribal chief, Plenty Coups, who lived from 1848 to 1932.

We’ll circle back a bit later to an incident involving Plenty Coups and a solitary chickadee, one that dramatically changed the lives of the Crow Nation beginning in the mid-19th century.

The Black-capped Chickadee weighs only 11 to 12 grams, or about the weight of a AAA battery. These non-migratory birds range from the northern two thirds of the U.S. into Canada and much of Alaska.

On minus-40-degree Fahrenheit mornings, I've witnessed them quietly working the grooves of lodgepole pine trees near Old Faithful, eating insect larvae or spider eggs they've found or perhaps stashed there in advance. In winter, they may eat up to 60 percent of their body weight daily.

On winter nights, Black-capped Chickadees lower their body temperature to the low 90s from their typical metabolic temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit. They also shiver to keep warm, and in brutal cold spells enter a state of torpor to conserve vital energy. Perhaps the expression "tough bird" comes from the Black-capped Chickadee's example!

These birds are excellent foragers. In warmer months, they perch for long periods of time on tree branches, hammering and cracking insects open to make for a more digestible meal. What I most enjoy from watching them is their indomitable spirit; they seem unfazed, upbeat and resourceful regardless of what's happening in their world.

In the late 1850s or early 1860s, Chief Plenty Coups took to heart the resourcefulness and perseverance demonstrated by these birds. As a youth, he received a vision of a great storm that toppled all but one tree in a vast forest. Perched on the lone surviving tree was a chickadee, long regarded by the Crow Nation as a good listener and able to adapt quickly to change.

As Plenty Coups shared his vision with tribal elders, they interpreted it as a sign that the Crow nation would best survive moving forward by making peace rather than warring with the U.S. government.

By the end of the 19th century, and in less than a generation, Chief Plenty Coups and his people had shifted from being nomadic buffalo hunters to living a more individualized, agriculture- based existence. Today, Chief Plenty Coups State Park south of Billings near Pryor, Montana, chronicles the unimaginably swift changes his people underwent and adapted to.

The late chief and his wife, Strikes the Iron, gifted their 195-acre family homestead and farm to the state of Montana. The park remains a vital, enduring bridge connecting different generations and cultures, illuminating the importance of building greater understanding and cooperation, and it is astonishing to think this came about from one person’s interaction with a chickadee!

Small but mighty is the chickadee, living amongst and between people who may see and experience the world differently. Yet this bird reminds us we are not all that different from each other deep at heart, that being open, flexible, and adaptable are the keys to thriving, no matter where our wings and feet are.

I’m Hobie Hare for Field Notes, brought to you by the Montana Natural History Center, providing natural history education for schools and the public throughout Montana. For information about upcoming events and programs at the Center, call 327.0405 or visit our website at

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