Questions from readers are always fun, especially when it leads to discussions about the best parts of nature

I have been writing these outdoor columns for almost 40 years, something that is hard for me to contemplate. There is no doubt that the most pleasurable aspect of all those words has been receiving reader’s feedback, be it pro or con, on any particular subject. 

And getting a question from a reader tops everything. 

Which brings me to the lead for this week’s column. Jean, an 11-year-old reader who lives in Virginia (I don’t know how she gets my copy down there unless it is from the internet) wrote to ask me what was my favorite bird and animal? 

Now that was a question straight out of left field, but since I treasure all of my 83 semi-regular readers, Jean’s question is the lead for today.

I had to do a lot of thinking with respect to what my favorite bird was. After all, I have had the opportunity of handling thousands of birds from hundreds of species. These range from condors and eagles to whooping and sandhill cranes, almost all species of North American raptors (hawks and owls), waterfowl (all species from swans to teal) to countless songbirds and hummingbirds.

That is quite a list, so choosing one single bird species as my favorite must be very difficult, right?

Actually it is not a hard choice at all. My favorite bird is a relatively tiny songbird that doesn’t “sing” very well. It is listed as a migratory bird, but it rarely migrates anywhere. 

But this little feathered tyke is gutsy beyond belief. It is always cautious, but rarely shows any fear from critters many times its size. If you guessed that it is the black-capped chickadee, you would be right.

Poecile atricapillus, the black-capped chickadee, has a scientific name that is almost bigger than it is.  And it has many interesting traits that most people never suspect. 

For instance, this tiny bird species has the ability to reduce its own body temperature on cold winter nights. That interesting trait allows it to conserve a lot of energy, to be raised back up with the sunrise and its quest for more food.

It has good “spatial memory,” which comes in handy since it also likes to store food for later use after it has eaten its fill. It will stash (my) sunflower seeds under any convenient flake of tree bark. The funny thing is that other chickadees in its flock, and even other flocks, also hide food. And they will steal any seeds they might find while trying to hide their own.

And yes, chickadees are easy to train when it comes to hand-feeding. A few years ago I put out a glove on my porch railing, placed a few sunflower seeds in the palm, and sat down nearby. Those always inquisitive fluff-balls found the food within minutes, and expected it within just a few days. It was a short move to putting my hand in the glove with the seeds, then removing the glove.

What other foods do chickadees eat? Insects are their primary fare from April or May and through the summer. Then various seeds and berries become the bulk of their food after that and all through the winter and early spring. And watching them hang upside-down as they search for food is a great example of nature’s humor. 

As for my favorite (wild) animal, that chore is a lot easier. While I have been blessed with various jobs that brought me into close contact with a wide variety of wild mammals, there is one species that stands out from all of the rest. I could sit and watch river otters for hours on end if that were possible.

The river otter used to be spread all across North America. But unregulated trapping combined with pollution and habitat destruction sent this species to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, humans smarted up and put protective regulations in place. Around the same time, various states began trap and transfer programs. Now the river otter is making a comeback just about everywhere it is found.

One of the things I like most about these critters is their versatility. You see, they are as at home on land as they are in any river or pond. Of course they do most of their feeding in the water, but they do most of their playing on land. And watching them while they are playing is truly a delightful sight to see.

Oh, and if you wonder about how they raise their families, that is also important, at least from the male’s point of view. That’s because the females do all (or at least most) of the work. She digs the burrow, births the babies (one to six kits), feeds them, cleans them and the den, and finally teaches them how to swim. 

But that last is the easiest part. To teach them to swim, she puts one or two on her back, starts swimming along, and then just sinks down and lets them go their merry way. They always quickly learn how to swim when that happens.

* * *

Here is a sad tale involving the successful deployment of a roadside buck decoy. What, you might ask? If the decoy did its job how could that possibly evolve into a sad tale? 

Well, you be the judge.

According the the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police, CPO’s Michael Goetten and Chris Gushleff put out a new deer decoy donated by the United Bow Hunters of Illinois (UBI) to combat illegal road hunting. And, in what has to be a new record time, this new, very realistic decoy buck was shot at within five minutes of being put out.

Here is where the sadness begins. According to the officers, a 13-year-old boy from Greene County, Illinois, was the actual shooter during the incident. And he was being coached by his grandfather. 

I have witnessed this type of situation all too often during past patrols. And I find it extremely sad that a youngster is learning an important and very illegal lesson from a person that should have been teaching sportsmanship. 

The grandfather will pay the full price for his transgressions, but will the boy learn the right lessons as well?

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Writer. Contact him at