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When I arrived, one of the first things I noticed was a pile of old birdseed dumped in the snow. Then I saw a flash of gray and white and heard a flutter of wings. A chickadee swooped down from a nearby tree, pecked at the birdseed, and took off again.

My eyes adjusted to the view, looking toward Lake Tahoe. This view never gets old. The sun was a golden orb casting late afternoon light across layers of mountains and faint clouds. Then, not far from where I stood, I saw another group of hikers in the trees, and one person had their arm raised, palm open, staring expectantly toward the branches.

Chickadee Ridge is famous for this moment. It’s a surreal experience in nature. It’s feeding the birds. If you raise your arm and beckon with birdseed, a mountain chickadee may just hop down from the branches and onto your fingertips.

On Instagram, Chickadee Ridge has a seemingly endless scroll of hashtagged or geotagged photos. The most popular ones evoke a Disney princess vibe. There is snow. There are trees. There is a bird in someone’s hand. If you take a similar photo, it will get all the likes.

But here’s the thing, the question that kept nagging at me: Should we be feeding the birds?

On my walk through the woods, I circled around this question. Not feeding wildlife is an ethic ingrained very deep in every fiber of my outdoors-loving being. Birds are wildlife. Even the smallest ones. Especially the smallest ones. But then I remembered the bird feeder hanging outside my mom’s porch, and how I would spend hours watching chickadees just outside the window, grabbing birdseed and flying away, not so unlike what they were doing on the ridge.

Chickadee Ridge is not some new phenomenon where tourists are suddenly disregarding Leave No Trace ethics. (Well, actually, they are disregarding those ethics. See Leave No Trace rule number six: “Respect Wildlife,” where it says we should travel through nature quietly and not feed animals.)

But my point is that feeding the birds at Chickadee Ridge has been a longtime “thing to do” in the winter in Lake Tahoe. I found those links by Googling “chickadee ridge.” This is a well-known hike. In each blog post, the marquee photo depicts a bird sitting in a person’s hand. These links were on the first page of the search results, alongside photo after photo of people delighted by a bird perched on their fingers. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

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