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Chickadees share a tree. Illustration by Grand Forks Herald publisher Mike Jacobs.

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Has the familiar, abundant chickadee become a cliche?

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Perhaps the most familiar and appealing of the birds that spend the winter with us are the black-capped chickadees — so familiar and appealing, in fact, that the species is almost a cliche.

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“One of the most widely recognized birds in North America, the black-capped chickadee is a common subject of folk and art and especially greeting cards.”

So says the Manitoba Naturalists Society in its book, “The Birds of Manitoba.”

This chickadee is common and widespread in our area, occurring wherever there are trees mature enough to provide nesting cavities. These are critical to chickadees for reproductive success, of course, but also for shelter in bitter weather.

Most chickadees are stay-at-home birds. The ones that appear at feeders are likely the ones that nested near us, but with potentially a few “floaters” mixed in. The floaters would have moved into winter territories, likely attracted by food supplies. Sometimes they displace members of the resident flock.

Like other birds, chickadees practice a rigid hierarchy in their flocks. A floater that displaces an established bird assumes its position and mates with its partner.

Yet this is apparently relatively rare, according to the monograph on the species in “The Birds of North America,” published by the American Ornithologists Union. They occur only when chickadee populations reach high levels.

So, this is a phenomenon that helps the birds retain viability by insuring that mating pairs are not too closely related.

This is only one of the marvelous adaptations that chickadees have developed.

They are capable of surviving extremely cold temperatures. “They can lower their body temperature at night and enter regulated hypothermia,” the AOU monograph says.

Chickadees also hoard food. Not all of the sunflower seed they take from our feeders is eaten immediately. Instead, it’s cached somewhere — and the chickadees remember where.

Thus, stored food is available for recovery in extremely foul weather — which explains why chickadees don’t show up in high wind and blowing snow.

Not all chickadees are perfectly proficient at this practice, however. The Manitoba naturalists tell this story:

“Like many creatures that remain active in Manitoba all winter, chickadees hoard food, especially in fall, by depositing seeds in nooks or crannies of trees or buildings. They possess a remarkable memory for the location of food caches but do not always choose their locations wisely. One misguided chickadee was observed transferring sunflower seeds from a feeder to a vertical, open ended steel conduit attached to a telephone pole. Its efforts were wasted, alas, as it had no means of retrieving them.”

The chickadee’s range extends across North America, pretty much filling up the middle third of the continent. They don’t occur north of the tree line — the naturalists report only 10 sightings in Churchill, Man., for example. Nor do they occur very much south of mid-Kansas, according to Paul Johnsgard in “Birds of the Great Plains.”

In pre-settlement days, chickadees probably didn’t occur throughout North Dakota, since much of the state was pretty much without trees of any kind. European settlement changed that, of course, as shelterbelts were planted. Now nearly every farm shelterbelt hosts at least a pair of chickadees.

So that makes chickadees common.

It does not, however, make them abundant. Instead, they generally occur in small flocks, sometimes mixed with other small birds. To find a couple of dozen would require visiting a number of likely spots.

At my place west of Gilby, N.D., the total chickadee population appears to be five. That’s the most I’ve seen that I can be certain are individual birds.

Not only are these birds familiar in winter, they are reliable indicators that the season is moving along. As the days grow longer, chickadees begin uttering their territorial calls, a two-note whistled “fee-bee” call, moving from a higher to a lower pitch.

This is an altogether different sound than the familiar chickadee call, a chattered and repetitious calling of their name. This is another aspect of the species that is almost a cliche — but not quite, I would argue.

Chickadees are so interesting and so appealing that they never seem monotonous. And they are never unwelcome.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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