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Totems: Chickadee

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman

We greet you with the morning sun. We love to sing you awake, and amuse you with skillful flying. We cut it close – sometimes only a milli-second spares us from collision. Give yourselves a little leeway. When you are being precise and incisive, do it with softness and good cheer – not too seriously. We are the Chickadee nation. We recognize you as a friend. We take your offerings of food and store them for the darkest, most barren days of winter. We feel exhilarated when our favorite foods are available to eat or store. When they are not, we adjust and make the best of it. We still sing our song, feel the pleasure of flying, tussling with each other, and finding new hiding places to store food. We enjoy the sun when it is out and hole up when it rains or snows. Will you also store your memory of Grandfather sun shining, the warmth of family and friends, and the rewards of creativity, for these long, dark days when you need cheering up? We will abide with you through it all, celebrating the return of spring in its time. Meanwhile take lots of vitamin D. We are irrepressibly optimistic that good things repeat in cycles.

As I walked out to the edge of the porch on a drizzly morning, black-capped chickadees were perched on the split-rail fence under the dense whips of the forsythia bush. Chickadee-dee-dee, chickadee-dee-dee greeted me. I returned the call, thinking how much I admire the cheer and valor of this little package of energy, spunky enough to stay in New England through the winter. How much do you value this friend who sticks around through the long cold winters of the Northeast, rather than flying south for the winter – always has something cheerful to say – and has courage beyond size and stature? That's chickadee, the heartrageous bird of winter.

Life can change in an instant for our animal kin as well as for us humans. It was a blustery day in early March, and I was driving up a hill. I had just crossed a four-way intersection, when I saw two chickadees in a vortex of dipping flight, like crazed butterflies in a mating dance - except this was no mating dance. These two were agitated over one of their kind lying on the road. They were in danger of being hit as well, so I pulled over as soon as I could and ran back to where I had seen them. One chickadee was completely smashed. Another was lying on its side. I sprinkled tobacco on the dead bird, blessed its soul, and asked the Spirit Keepers of the Four Directions to take it. I quickly removed the other one. Then I noticed the third chickadee on a large bush nearby, jumping anxiously from branch to branch. How brave it was, never leaving its companions; facing a human 100 times its size! My heart broke open, as healing energy poured into my hands and I worked on the unconscious bird. After a while I placed it down, but as soon as I did, I knew it wasn't time, so I picked it up again. It began to move and focus its eye on me. I helped it stand straight, instead of lying on its side. The little chickadee cocked its head and stared straight into my eyes. Suddenly all its medicine flew into me. The words "cheerfulness" and "courage beyond size" came forth. The only other time I'd had an experience like that was in my naming ceremony, when the medicine of Thunderbird flew into me. The chickadee was standing on my palm by this time. I sent it love and thanks, as it hopped up and down, then flew off to join the bird on the branch. What a happy reunion that was!

Although there are forty species of chickadees, New England has three: the Black-capped chickadee, the Boreal chickadee, and the Tufted titmouse. The Pacific Coast has the Chestnut-backed chickadee, that nests in damp coniferous forests. The Boreal also prefers conifers, the denser the better, and is relatively quiet. Black-capped chickadees survive winter's extremely cold nights by roosting in the cavities of trees, mostly dead birches, since they don't have the kind of digging beak that say, woodpeckers do. That saves at least 60% radiant heat, over open-air roosting. Did you know that a chickadee brain expands 20% in the winter, specifically the hippocampus, which controls spatial memory. With their excellent vision and keen intelligence, my local chickadees spot me going down the steps to put their favorite oil-type sunflower seeds in the dangling feeder by the forsythia. A chickadee cracking open a sunflower seed holds it firmly with its foot while it hammers the seed open. Recognizing me, these sassy little members of the titmouse family buzz me, flying like stunt pilots through the porch and back to the feeder, impatiently waiting for their treat. People with this totem are quite acrobatic, enjoying precision sports. Later, the chickadees will take the seeds and add them to their stash of spiders, insect eggs and larvae, burying them in bark, pine needles and dirt, in anticipation of the fast-approaching winter. After the first snow, they bury them in the snow as well. Probably their brains enlarge to remember where all their stash is (they can remember for 28 days) for they need enough food to generate continuous body warmth through the winter. On cold nights they go into hypothermia, body temperature just above freezing to conserve energy. To find food, every so often a phenomenon called irruption occurs, where black-capped and boreal chickadees move beyond their normal range in massive movements. Seed crops fluctuate in patterns of abundance and shortfall from one year to the next, driving seed-eating birds south in lean years; in good years, they stay farther north and produce more babies. If chickadee is your totem, you are resourceful and frugal concerning the use and distribution of resources. Perhaps you run a food bank or another organization that helps those in depleted circumstances.

Chickadees choose their mates the season before mating. The male and female seem to have a tender, egalitarian relationship. A couple (bird or humans experiencing a chickadee phase) mates and works together as a unit. They decide things together even if they have separate roles. Both male and female chickadees search for nesting sites, and when they find one (usually in a rotted birch or pine), they both excavate, one tiny mouthful at a time. The female finds moss, roots and animal fur, while the male watches for danger. When alarmed, chickadees will sound a sharp chattering note that sends all nearby birds for cover. The female sits on four to six rust-speckled, white eggs for the incubation period (12-13 days), constantly turning the eggs and checking them, which helps them get equal heat from her "brood patch". This is the bald spot on her stomach where she loses her feathers, capillaries swelling close to the surface for increased blood flow. When the eggs hatch, dad provides tiny insects for his mate and brood. By listening to his song, the young chickadees learn theirs. Men with this totem are hands-on dads. After breeding, chickadees often join mixed flocks with other small birds. Although they will roost and forage together, they will still compete for food.

I am inspired by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, a leader who employed consistent and persistent courage throughout his long battle to prevent the genocide of his people. The U.S. government removed the Nez Perce, their horses and their cattle, from their Pacific northwest ancestral home, thereby creating starvation, imposing an alien civilization upon them, and causing the death of so many. He continuously argued for his people and their home, in ways so eloquent and incisive, it makes you want to scream, "don't you see how beautifully they lived!" Imagine knowing you were the land, and being separated from all you loved: "The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same. I look upon the land with pleasure. It was made for us, with all its natural advantages. Nothing should supersede it. It is clothed in fruitfulness. Understand me: I never said the land was mine to do with as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours."

Therese of Lisieux, "the little flower" was also a warrior in a very different way. She believed in bringing oneself into mastery through working on "the little things" that challenge us each day - exercising awareness, patience, kindness and respect for others. This takes real courage. The power of the small is not to be underestimated, for really, there is no such thing as small when it comes to energy. Therese's life is an example of this. Who could imagine that a cloistered nun practicing the "little way," who died at twenty-four would become the Catholic Church's most popular saint?

It takes enormous courage to live an everyday life. We humans invariably tend to get stuck in pleasure or pain, praise or blame, loss or gain, disgrace or fame – when actually, everything is itself and its opposite. Equanimity in the face of one or more of these extremes is heroic. Can you experience your feelings, and then let go into the next moment with whatever that brings? The essence of chickadee reminds us that courage is not determined by size or might. Sometimes, it's doing what you can, while fighting overwhelming odds or even while losing the battle. It takes courageous souls to persevere in the face of global warming challenges, chemical onslaughts to the Mother, cruelty to our fellow humans and animals, and business practices that place profit over wellness. It takes awareness, cooperation and community to keep one's heart out of the pit of despair, and to stand behind one's vision for a beautiful world.

Do you have the courage to have a vision for the planet? This would be a vision of how you want the world to be, inspired by what your heart recognizes as its truth, not necessarily what the world considers possible. Here's a part of my vision of the world I want:

Instead of a world based on survival, the way the world is run is based on sure and certain knowledge that with desire and use of creativity, there can be enough food, clothing and shelter for all, taking into the consideration, the welfare of all. All this really requires is a shift in what we consider necessary to live well. "Our welfare" includes the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms. The days of sacrificing one for the other are well over. People occupy themselves with aspirations of harmony and the awareness that we each are ONE – one for all, and all for one. Ambition is expressed as excellence. Achievement is a natural outgrowth of having been nurtured.

Government and the private sector hold contests for the invention of technology that helps lives, does the most good for the planet, and cleans up all that is toxic. No company is allowed to create any chemical, unless they also create a way to nuetralize any ill effects. Same with any other pollution. There are no "allowable" levels for toxic substances. We have eliminated all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. If there is unresolvable conflict between nations (if there are still nations), only leaders fight.

We supplant the fear that is the root of hatred, intolerance, and indifference to suffering, with actions that are examples that what is done to one is done to all. We stop using addictions to prevent us being alone with ourselves; instead, we accept ourselves as we are, as the basis for further growth. Caring is the gauge for action. People are supported in doing work that uses their highest talents and interests.

Mother Earth is recognized as a living sentient being, and we treat her as one interrelated ecosystem. Even the smallest creatures are treated with kindness and effort to promote their well-being in a natural way. Humans give back to the plant, animal and crystalline kingdoms. We only use healthy products. We've discovered there's always another way to develop products and medicines, other than making another being suffer.

We acknowledge the other inhabitants of the Universes as Star Nation. We commit to peaceful solutions when there is a conflict between humans, Nature, or others.

Write to me, sharing your heartrageous vision for our future. Keep in mind that energy is real, and all change begins in the heart and imagination. I will place our visions under the apex of my pyramid, which is linked to all the pyramids and sacred geometric structures on the planet. I will then do ceremony for their realization. 

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a healer and writer for 35 years. As an interfaith minister, advocate and steward for the natural world, Cie lives and works in light and sound shamanically, offering healing for animals and humans. To contact her for in-person or long-distance healing, or to purchase Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com

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