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Technically, there’s no law stating you can’t feed birds. Nevada state laws forbid feeding big game animals, but that doesn’t include chickadees, said Jessica Wolff, urban wildlife coordinator for Nevada Department of Wildlife. (And for all the Californians, Mount Rose and Chickadee Ridge are, in fact, in Nevada.) Still, just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean we should do it. It’s a matter of ethics. Wolff cited Leave No Trace guidelines and also mentioned that feeding the chickadees just isn’t good for them.

First and foremost, giving chickadees food erodes their healthy fear of humans. It means they’ll slowly get accustomed to us, and they’ll be more likely to come into contact with us. For an example of why this is bad, see Tahoe’s bear crisis.

“From the Forest Service standpoint, we encourage people to respect wildlife and enjoy viewing it from a safe distance and never approach or feed wild animals, including birds,” said Lisa Herron, spokesperson for the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “We can equate it to the same issue that we have with bears. The whole bear problem that we have in the basin is the same thing. Once the wild animals become accustomed to human presence and human food, they come back and seek it out.”

Chickadees are already more comfortable than they should be around humans, especially here at this ridge. “I’ve been up there before and just held out my hand with nothing in it and they still will come up and sit on your fingers,” Wolff said. “This is not normal wildlife behavior. But because they are so used to people coming up and feeding them, it has become normalized to them.” There’s also the problem of people feeding them bad food, say crumbs from a half-eaten Clif bar in your pocket. “Things like bread from sandwiches and crumbs from chips have been offered,” Wolff said. “While these are great foods for us, they are not what mountain chickadees need. Mountain chickadees primarily eat insects and seeds!”

Mountain chickadees are remarkable creatures. You’ve probably heard them. Their call is unmistakable in its clarity, and yet I often mistake the birds for calling out the word “cheeseburger.” That’s why I usually call them the “cheeseburger bird.” This is also what I love about them most. Mountain chickadees are a nonmigratory species, so they live in harsh climates, like atop Mount Rose, all year long. To survive brutal winters at 9,000 feet, the birds cache food they found in the late summer and fall. A group of wildlife researchers at the University of Nevada Reno has been studying them for years to learn more about how mountain chickadees can remember all of the places they stored food days, weeks or months ago. The researchers found that mountain chickadees have huge reserves of food, stashing hundreds of thousands of seeds in individual locations.

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