Bowhunters’ 3-D Deer Targets Give Chickadees a Home

Posted by: Patrick Durkin on Jul 24, 2012

A flying dark blur caught my eye as I pulled the first arrow from the backyard deer target. I scanned the trees in the blur’s direction, but nothing caught my attention.Hmm. Maybe it was just my imagination, or maybe my peripheral vision deceived me. It happened so fast. Seconds later I resumed pulling arrows while shifting my thoughts to desk work waiting inside.

An adult chickadee is about to launch from its nesting cavity in my 3-D deer target.

When I shot another round of 20 arrows the next day at lunchtime, I had forgotten the dark blur. When I approached the 3-D target and braced it with my hip to aid the arrow pulling, I heard a rushing, fluttering sound as something blurred past the target’s front.
Now convinced that a bird had flushed past me two straight days, I looked and listened more carefully. Agitated calls of “tshe, daigh daigh daigh” drew me to a chickadee flitting about an elm’s branches 10 yards away.

Then I looked around the life-size deer target, figuring the bird must be nesting nearby. My search ended when I spotted a hole centering the white throat patch on my plastic-foam deer target. A rifle-hunter trying a neck shot couldn’t have center-punched the spot much better.

Chickadees peck out circular tunnels in 3-D targets atop the “deer’s” neck and beneath its jawbone.

Would nesting chickadees be so bold to set up a nursery in my deer target? After leaning my full quiver against the target’s body, I slowly lifted off the fake deer’s head and looked down the interior shaft. Sure enough. A petite hair-lined nest at the bottom held nine small eggs.

Before sliding the deer head back into position, I admired the 5- to 6-inch tunnel that Ma and Pa Chickadee had pecked through the target’s neck and upper body. Its circumference was about that of a cardboard cylinder from a toilet-paper roll.

John James Audubon long ago noted that the chickadee’s bill isn’t designed for the woodpecker’s labors. Maybe so, but what chickadees lack in equipment they overcome in want-to.

The nine chickadee eggs begin hatching, and the chicks beg for food within minutes.

Just to confirm things and learn more, I looked up the black-capped chickadee in our bird encyclopedia, and contacted some birding friends. Yep. The nest was inside a cavity and about 3 feet off the ground. Blackcaps seldom nest higher than 10 feet, and they often use holes made or begun by squirrels or woodpeckers.

However, chickadees don’t hesitate to create their own nesting cavities from rotting stumps or tree trunks. We can now add “relatively new Glen-Del 3-D plastic-foam deer targets” to the chickadee’s list of potential dwellings.  Further reading revealed that I would have to shoot arrows at other targets for about three to four weeks to allow the eggs to hatch and fledglings to leave. No big deal, I figured. I have alternative practice targets.

But when I looked more closely at my other two 3-D targets – old McKenzie and Blue Ridge models, they also had chickadee holes atop their necks and below their jawbones! So, I had no choice but to pull out my Block targets and use them for a few weeks.

Once inside the neck, chickadees excavate a shaft and build their nest at its bottom.

I figured I owe chickadees at least that favor. The deer hunter in me has long appreciated this bird for its soft whistles and steady companionship during November’s long vigils in the woods and forests. If there’s a prettier sound in a snowy woods than the melancholy “phoebe” of unseen chickadees I haven’t heard it.

Further, with the possible exception of gray jays in Northern forests, you can’t find a bolder bird than the blackcap chickadee. Until bait piles littered Wisconsin’s deer woods, I often wondered how chickadees knew who carried food and, more importantly, who would share it. More clear was that they valued granola bars and braunschweiger sandwiches more than I could.

Even so, sometime before next spring I’ll clean their nest cavity inside my target and patch it with injection foam. Don’t fret. I’ll provide alternative, compensatory housing. I know of some freshly cut white-cedar logs with rotting interiors in southern Ashland County. I’ll bet I can cut 2- or 3-foot sections from them, attach a floor and roof, and place them where they’ll be used. 

Although we seldom see these little birds when their motivations turn from mooching to parenting, we know we’ll seldom receive more enjoyment from smaller packages.

Patrick Durkin

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