One December, a number of years ago, a gentleman, a more-than-avid lister perhaps, joined us on our Christmas count. He had a curious quest, he explained: “To see the state bird of every state of the U.S. in that particular state.”
“Not a problem,” we replied, since the state bird of Massachusetts is the black-capped chickadee, one of the most populous — and popular — species in our area. Not a count year passes without hundreds of chickadees adding to the day’s total.
Within the first few minutes on New Lenox Road, chickadees, ever inquisitive, fly down to a nearby branch, chick-a-dee-dee-dee-ing to see who these binoculared traipsers in their territory are. Check, our lister has his bird!
It occurs to me in all this time I have never written about this charming, wee, big-headed, black-and-white bird, so eloquently described by Bradford Torrey in 1889: “It would be a breach of good manners, an inexcusable ingratitude, to write ever so briefly of the New England winter without noting this (the chickadee), the most engaging and characteristic enlivener of our winter woods; who revels in snow and ice, and is never lacking in abundant measures of faith and cheerfulness, enough, not only for himself, but for any chance wayfarer of our own kind.
Autumn, this year, has been relatively warm with barely a frost now and again. Food is plentiful, but by the beginning of November, we put our feeders out. The first birds, as always, to arrive are the black-capped chickadees. Soon other species — titmice, nuthatches, goldfinch, woodpeckers, mourning doves, blue jays and cardinals are darting in and out snatching up seeds.
The next morning, alas, the iron poles are twisted, the feeders cracked and strewn about. What were we thinking? Of course, Mr. Bear is not hibernating! So now Danny faithfully brings the feeders into a shed each night. By the time we are setting them up again just after sunrise, the chickadees are perched nearby as if waiting for the restaurant to open. (Note: Two weeks later we find one of the poles bent in half again. Finding no food, this bratty bear bends the pole in half and departs. Fortunately he leaves the other poles alone.)
a familiar sound“Chickadee-dee-dee,” the bird sings to his colleagues and soon the others appear. Some scientists believe these tiny birds are very wary and watchful, knowing where food is and when a predator is nearby. They vocally alert all the birds in the area. Extra dee-dee-dees are part of the code. Some posit that this is particularly helpful to migrating birds who are constantly in need of food on the fly. They can forage while the chickadees continually watch for predators.
I’m never sure exactly how scientists determine such things. A Gary Larson cartoon pops into my mind — the one where the man, possibly a scientist, is talking to a duck. “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” No answer. “Habla Espanol?” No answer. “Parlez vous Francais?” No answer. Then the man quacks … and the duck answers. In the last frame, they are both quack-quack-quacking at one another, imparting useful information, no doubt.
Our local species, the black-capped chickadee, Poecile (formerly Parus) atricapillus, is aptly named for both his appearance (black cap) and his vocalization (chickadee). Even the Cherokee named the bird onomatopoetically: tsi’kilili. The Cherokee believe that if you see a tsi’kilili, someone will be coming to visit or coming home after being away for a while, similar to my grandmother’s belief that if you dropped a fork you would soon have a woman visitor; a knife, a man.
The bird is small, five inches, with a tiny bill, a prominent black cap and black bib with white cheeks and a grayish body. In Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds (1946), I’m startled to find no fewer than 26 entries for chickadees, each with a clear description of variations in plumage and territory. With further reading, seven actual species emerge, the rest are subspecies. I check with Sibley’s recent edition of his field guide and those seven have remained the same: Mountain, Carolina, Chestnut-backed, Mexican, Gray-headed, Boreal and our little guy, the Black-capped.
Ralph Hoffmann, in his “A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York” (1904) mentions that the black-capped is a permanent resident while the Hudsonian chickadee, now know as the boreal, is not. It is a resident only of the higher altitude mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont and occasionally has been found at the top of Mt. Greylock. David Saint James in his “Annotated List of the Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts” (2017) says that the boreal is a very rare winter visitor indeed.
taking flightOddly much discussion in Bent concerns determining whether chickadees are migratory. They are not. After breeding, they do wander from place to place often in mixed flocks. Winter brings them to our feeders in droves. In the harsher months they take seeds, sometimes 1,000 a day, and store them in various crevices and hidey holes. This is know as scatter hoarding.
Recent experiments have led scientists to believe that chickadees remember where they hide each and every one. Really? Study of the the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory, shows that this is larger in birds that have to exist in harsher climates. Studies show that this area increases with the colder months and then shrinks again when spring comes.
Another study claims that the bird can remember his storage locations for up to 28 days. What patience these ornithologists have to spend day after day following one chickadee on her seed hiding and retrieving rounds. Like humans, she’s way better at finding lost or hidden items than her masculine counterparts who have male pattern blindness.
Yet another study shows that chickadees are able to see ultraviolet light, which carries many more colors than we can see. The male and female look pretty much alike to us, but to each other that white cheek reflects various levels of ultraviolet light making it easy for one chickadee to recognize another.
What amazing advances in bird biology thanks to such complex chickadee communication from these inquisitive, bold and social creatures!