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Picture walks: Listen for the chickadees

By Jeanne Church

The black-capped chickadee is one of the easiest birds to attract to your backyard feeders and, if you’re patient enough, one of the very first birds that will readily take food from your outstretched hand. Chickadees particularly love sunflower seeds and peanuts, which they will quickly grab from your feeders or your hand, and flit away to a nearby tree to consume – or hide.

From sunrise to sunset, chickadees spend most of their time eating. When they are not at your feeders, chickadees are busy looking for insect eggs, larvae, pupae, weevils, lice, sawflies and other insects, as well as spiders. In other words, chickadees are one of our most important pest exterminators!

When food is plentiful, chickadees hide their excess bugs and seeds in thousands of different locations. This behavior, called caching, helps chickadees survive the winter months when food is harder to come by. The food they cache will be hidden under tree bark, dead leaves, clusters of pine needles, or even under roofing shingles! They will also hide food in the ground, or in the knotholes of trees.

As an interesting side note, researchers have found that the chickadee hippocampus, or spatial memory part of its brain, is proportionally larger than in birds who do not cache their food. This larger hippocampus allows chickadees to remember where they’ve hidden all those thousands of different food items to be retrieved later.

The chickadee name comes from its distinctive call “chick-a-dee-dee”. Both males and females use this call for a wide variety of situations, but mostly as an alarm call. The more “dee” notes at the end of a chickadee call, the higher their level of agitation or alarm. The number of “dees” at the end of the chickadee call corresponds not just to their level of agitation, but to the actual threat involved. For example, one “dee” indicates no threat at all, but five “dees” at the end of a call indicate that a specific predator, like the northern pygmy owl, is in the vicinity.

It is also quite interesting, I think, that most other wild bird species are able to recognize and interpret the chickadee’s alarm calls and take appropriate safety measures to protect themselves – even when they have no comparable alarm call themselves!

Chickadees have a complex set of at least 16 different vocalizations that they use to communicate with their flock. While I would be hard pressed to identify most of those vocalizations, there is at least one sound that I’ve heard many, many times but, until recently, had no idea that it belonged to a chickadee. It’s a very high pitched “fee-bee, fee-bee” call that’s used to broadcast territorial claims and to attract mates.

Next time you’re out for a walk, or even sitting in your own backyard, listen for the chickadees. What are they saying? Are they trying to attract a mate, are they laying stake to their territory, or are they worried about a nearby predator?

If you already have black-capped chickadees coming to your feeders, try standing nearby with an outstretched hand filled with peanuts or sunflower seeds and see if one of these charming little birds will stop by for a bite to eat. My first chickadee customer landed on my hand within a few minutes of holding out my offering! But even if it takes much longer than that for the chickadees in your yard to gather up the courage to take a seed, it’s well worth the wait, especially if you’ve never had the experience of such a tiny creature placing all its trust in you.

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