Chickadee-dee-dee -Fall 2018

Feisty, fearless and fun to watch, chickadees have a big personality, and are willing to share it. The state bird of Massachusetts, it’s hard to find a place in the Bay State where these tiny birds are absent.

by: Virginia Andrews

At its northern extremity their range stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland, across the boreal forests of Canada. Along the southern edge it wiggles from Northern California to Northern New Mexico, tapers north to central Ohio, drifts down the Appalachians and then ends at the New Jersey coast.

The Carolina Chickadee, a closely-related species, occupies the territory south of that. In recent years the Carolina form has been advancing north at the rate of about 10 miles per year, and the two species interbreed where the ranges overlap.

They are reliable customers of every back-yard birdfeeder, usually the first to check out a new tube, platform, dish or whatever feeding device a homeowner provides. Black-oil sunflower seed, peanuts or suet are favorites.

They will even take food from the hand, particularly if accustomed to human presence. Whole books have been written about handfeeding wild birds, and it is easy to see why. To gain the trust of a wild creature is a real thrill, a testament to patience and consistency. Chickadees seem fearless in their curiosity. They are cautious, however, always keeping an eye out for danger and vanishing quickly and easily, adding extra “dees” as a warning. They are quite willing to scold the filler of “their” feeder, too.

Nearly everyone knows that “dee-dee-dee” call of the chickadee. But that is not all that they have to say. The Chickadee is named for its distinctive call, but observations and sonographs of recordings reveal they make at least 16 different vocalizations. The “chick” part of the call, or a “tsee” or “see” sound, is combined with other noises. Both individuals and flocks exchange information. The “dee-dees” vary in number, rhythm and intensity, depending on the nature of the conversation. The more “dees,” the greater the excitement, as when a predator is in the neighborhood. Chickadees are like watchdogs. They give the alarm when a hawk flies over. They are particularly vociferous when they encounter something like a Screech Owl. They set up a deafening chorus that draws everyone else in the neighborhood to see where the enemy is. Although Screech Owls have not been documented on Nantucket, ours still respond to the call. But the sound actually defined as their “song” is a two-part “fee-bee,” with the first note higher and the second sometimes drawn out as “bee-ee.” Ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, famous for his recordings and studies of birdsong, translates it as “hey sweetie.” The drawn-out, plaintive “fee-bee” is the Chickadee love call. It is an adult vocalization that young birds don’t start to make until about a month or more after fledging. Both males and females give the call, although perhaps males give it more often, and some of the softer gargles tend to be made more by females.

In the fall, as young Chickadees begin trying out their adult voices, the “fee-bee” sound echoes through pine woods. One bird answers another and yet another as they add to the conversation. It is apparently a great attraction. Once on a bird walk the late ornithologist Vernon Laux whistled the call and immediately a nearby chickadee flew right up to his lips.

The “fee-bee” or “hey sweetie” call is of interest for another reason. Black-capped Chickadees are widespread. They are resident, not migratory, throughout most of their range. Although there is a movement in the fall as young birds disperse, in most instances they are remarkably consistent in their vocalizations across the continent. But there are some strangely notable exceptions. On nearby Martha’s Vineyard, chickadees have a local dialect, reversing the call as “sweetie-hey,” with both notes on the same pitch. There are only two other places where this happens, in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado. Nantucket’s Chickadees are consistent with those on the mainland.

Why this should be is a mystery, when the islands are so close together. But Chickadees are not particularly fond of crossing large bodies of water, although they will if they have to. Perhaps Chickadees reached the Vineyard earlier than Nantucket. In the 19th century Nantucket was nearly treeless other than a few “harp of the winds” stands and various plantings. William Brewster, visiting the island in August 1878, was very surprised to find one Chickadee on Nantucket in a “pine plantation.” It was the first he had ever seen here, out of numerous prior visits.

In the 1940s they were resident only in small numbers. By 1946 there were at least five to seven pairs nesting, although there is no information about when they became established. It was considered evidence of migration, as dispersing Chickadees were impossible to separate out from local birds in places where they were common.

But current thinking is that irruption is the more common driver of large movements of chickadees. Banding records show that 90 percent of recaptured Chickadees were in the same area where they were originally banded. And like other irruptive species, they become more numerous when there is a lot of food, raising more young. More juveniles means greater density, possibly more than an area can support. So they go out to seek their fortunes, to find new territory. In any case, if food becomes scarce or habitat is destroyed, the residents as well as the birds of the year spread out to seek better resources.

During the breeding season Chickadees feed their young mainly on insects: caterpillars, flies, spiders and other invertebrates. They come and go every six to 15 minutes, stuffing their babies with whatever they catch or glean from the surrounding trees. In fall and winter they eat more berries and seeds. In addition to the typical birdfeeder fare Chickadees particularly like seeds of cone-bearing trees. In the fall when pinecones begin to open and scatter their seeds, look for them all gathering in a flock on certain trees, the ones just beginning to release their bounty. Those confusing fall warblers follow suit, attracting birders to look for them, too.

Chickadees also cache food, taking it away and hiding it for later consumption. Studies show that Chickadee brains have an enlarged area of the hippocampus associated with spatial memory. They can recall thousands of places where individual seeds have been stored. Not bad for a bird whose total weight tops out at about nine grams. They can also adjust to cold weather by entering a form of hypothermia, dropping their body temperature at night by as much as 10 degrees to conserve energy. They roost in cavities in trees or nest boxes, where they also lay their eggs and raise the young in summer. They often use cattail fluff in their nest and roosts, making for a bed of soft insulation.

Chickadees adapt to suburbia, and use forest edges, but do better when houses are further apart and trees closer together. They are one of our few bird species that has a stable or increasing population. They are probably well able to be independent of supplemental feeding.

But with a cheery “dee-dee-dee” they are always ready for a handout, making them a nearly ubiquitous delight. ///

Virginia Andrews writes the weekly “Island Bird Sightings” column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and is a regular writer for Nantucket Today.

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