For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadees (Placeholder)

Original Air Date: Nov. 23, 1992

When northlanders feel gloomy about our winter weather, Laura advises us to consider the chickadee.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Now that most Northland birds have retreated south for the duration, chickadees are an even more welcome sight than they were all summer and fall. During a long winter, chickadees are one of the few links we have with sanity and good cheer, but even as more colorful birds return in spring and the chickadee becomes less conspicuous, it will still be one of my favorite creatures.

Chickadees have many different vocalizations. The chickadee dee dee call is a flocking vocalization, apparently usually given by a bird that has become temporarily separated from the group.

(Recording of a chickadee-dee-dee call)

Chickadees have many territorial calls in their flocks, which a dominant bird uses to warn an underling to keep its distance.

(Recording of a territorial warning call)

Chickadees also have an “I’m outta here” call that they give as they move on to a new spot.

(Recording of a warning call)

But my favorite vocalization of chickadees is their spring song. This is given year round, but with the fewest songs given in fall and early winter. There is some evidence that both members of a pair occasionally sing back and forth, and other evidence that it isn’t so much used as a territorial song as a courtship ritual for sealing the pair bond. But the fact that chickadees do often answer the song back and forth when a person imitates the whistle indicates that there are some elements of territoriality to it.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee song)

Humans aren’t bright enough, quite, to really understand what chickadees are saying, and so ornithologists will continue to work on the mysteries of their language for centuries to come.

As spring advances, so do the romantic inclinations of chickadees. They are discreet and treasure their privacy, unlike cowbirds and ring-billed gulls, which are often caught in the act of lovemaking right on people’s front lawns. The “come-hither look” in a chickadee is a full body display—either the male or the female suddenly begins delicately fluttering its wings and tail, and then they retreat to a hidden branch for the act of creating new little chickadees. As with their winter sleeping quarters, chickadees excavate their own nest hole—the ones I have found have all been in the trunks of rotted birches, but once in a box elder. Many are below eye level. The way you locate a nest is to watch for a chickadee carrying wood chips in its beak, and retrace its flight path to its near-by home. Sometimes chickadees dig out two or three holes before finding exactly the right place to raise their 6-8 babies, so it takes time and patience to find the real nest site. If you put your hand near an occupied nest hole, the chickadee within will often hiss at you like a snake.

Chickadees stop by feeders throughout the summer, but far less frequently than they do in winter. A balanced diet to a chickadee is something achieved over a year’s time. In summer it concentrates on protein, which it gets from insects and spiders. In fall it gets its vitamins from wild fruits. And in winter it gets its carbohydrates and fats from suet, bird seed, and the seeds of conifers, birches, and weeds, along with a little protein from insect pupae in the crevices of trees and shrubs. Chickadees have been recorded living as long as 12 1/2 years in the wild, but never once have they been reported worrying about cholesterol.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”