Here’s the story of our little chickadees ee

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By Sylvia Brockner

If there is one species of bird that is a regular visitor at everyone’s winter feeder, it is the chickadee. They are often considered to be winter residents or permanent residents. However, some researchers now believe chickadees do have a migration when birds that have wintered in the southern part of their range move northward to nest.

I believe this also, for when I was birding every day, I would have a “chickadee day” or two every spring when more than the usual winter birds (they were all banded) passed through in good numbers. The birds were also molting and often lost a few feathers when I handled them, although most books don’t say they molt in spring, but rather that they molt in July and August after they have finished nesting.

Some authors refer to chickadees as “birds with a heart,” but I like to call them the “Sara Lee” birds, because “nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” They are such bright, inquisitive, energetic, friendly little birds that everyone loves them. There are innumerable stories about chickadees alighting on people’s hands or head, and they are very easily trained to eat from your hand if you have the time and patience.

I even have my own chickadee story to tell. Many years ago we were birding in Letchworth State Park south of Rochester, N.Y. I had wandered off from the others and was standing all alone in the winter woods watching a small flock of winter birds, mostly juncos and chickadees. They had slowly fluttered toward me until they were too close for my binoculars to focus on, so I was holding them about waist high, horizontally, so I could just flip them up if I saw something farther away. Suddenly, one of the chickadees left the flock and fluttered up to land on my binoculars. I stood still, and it examined them carefully; it poked its tiny, shiny, black bill into every crack and crevice, bent over and looked backward into the binoculars, explored my gloves, and then, with a sharp “bree” call, flew back to join the flock, where he looked at me as if to say, “If you don’t have any food, what are you standing there for?” The flock moved on, and I did too, in the opposite direction, to discover I was not too far from the back door of a restaurant. I could only assume that someone had been feeding this little bird and it had lost all fear of people.

There is hardly any area of the U.S. that some chickadee cannot be found. The type specimen for the black-capped chickadee was found in the northeastern states, and its range extends northward into Canada and west across Canada to Alaska. The Carolina chickadee is found in our southeastern states, and locally we have both a different form of the black-capped chickadee and the mountain chickadee nesting. Generally speaking, the black-capped chickadee prefers the stream valleys of the plains and foothills up to about 8,000 feet. Above that, the mountain chickadee nests in the coniferous forest to timberline. I have both of these birds at our feeders at about 7,800 feet because the black-capped chickadee came up from Little Cub Creek valley below the house, which is on the hillside among the Ponderosa pines.

For many years we had a pair of black-capped chickadees that came regularly to the feeders, along with a handful of mountain chickadees. Then one spring only a single black-capped chickadee showed up. Apparently its mate had not made it through the winter. Having no other choice, it mated with a mountain chickadee. The first thing I noticed is that all of their young had white eye lines like the mountain chickadee. That seems to be a dominant factor, and in the course of the passing years, all my of my chickadees seem to be hybrids with a white eye line, no matter how much they look like a black-capped chickadee in other ways. Sometimes the white is only about a quarter of an inch long, and other times it is a full line from the base of the beak to above the eye. Otherwise, some of the birds have the dingy gray look of the mountain chickadee, and other times the fresh, clean look of the black-capped.

Both of these birds have the same songs, but the mountain chickadee sounds like a Scotsman, for his “bree, bree” song has a definite “br” to it. Their “phee bee” songs are a two-note clear whistle that is believed to be part of their courtship. No doubt this is true, for I usually hear it for the first time each spring around Valentine’s Day, when it is a most welcome sign of spring.