Chickadee

The black-capped chickadee, pictured in Paradise, Mich., is one of the more familiar birds to the area scene and is common around the area.

One of the most familiar and well liked among birders and non birders alike is the black-capped chickadee. The very small bird’s total body length is six inches, with a wingspan of just eight inches.

Considered very cute by many, partly because of the small size, the black-capped chickadee has the namesake of a black cap, along with a black bib, white cheeks and a gray back, wings and tail. The bird also has a white underside, with buffy sides.

This chickadee, like the almost identical Carolina chickadee, is quick to come to bird feeders. One fairly sure way to tell the difference between the two chickadees when they overlap, is by their call. The black-capped possesses a three-noted “here, fee-bee”, song. The Carolina chickadee has a four-noted “see-dee, see-dee” song. In addition, both species have the “dee-dee” call, but the Carolina’s is higher pitched and faster.

The two species overlap in central in southern Ohio, but northern Ohio and Michigan is strictly black-capped chickadee territory.

Along with the quickness to come to feeders, the black-capped chickadee is quite tame and has been known to take food from a person’s hand. Because there are a lot of predators for the black-capped, the bird doesn’t stick around at all, though, when feeding. It quickly takes the food and then goes to a safe spot to eat.

However, the black-capped chickadee may also fly off to store its food in a safe place, like a crack or crevice, in a tree. Remarkably, it is rumored that both chickadee species can remember hundreds, or possibly even 1,000 different hiding places. The birds do this most often for the winter months, in case they need the food for survival. These birds do not migrate.

Studies have shown that a part of these bird’s brains enlarges as it gets closer to winter, enabling the birds to remember more. Then, when winter passes, the memory part of the bird’s brain shrinks back to normal size.

When banding this bird, the best time for banding the black-capped species is after the bird’s youngsters have left the nest. A bander once told me that the normally, the bird stays away from nets, which is where the birds are caught and then banded. But when the youngsters are about, the chickadees are paying all their attention on the little ones and not on the nets. Then, they frequently fly into the nets.

Once getting banded, though, watch out. Though relatively tame, the black-capped lets the bander know that he doesn’t at all like the process. He has a way of finding an exposed human finger and biting down painfully hard.

While the memory for finding all the hiding places for food is quite remarkable, maybe even more remarkable is the black-capped’s complex vocalizations, where they communicate with each other, as well as with other species. According to a report by “The Gall Lab”, each black-capped chickadee has at least 16 different vocalizations.

The black-capped’s “here fee-bee” call lets others know of the singing bird’s territory, or it may be used to find a mate. In addition, a fainter “fee-bee” is used by the bird around its nest, or to communicate to little ones in the nest. Nests are generally built in a tree cavity.

In looking at alarm calls, first, one black-capped may stand as a lookout for the others. These birds have countless numbers of alarm calls, including a high pitched, high intensity “see” call, when a predator is spotted flying nearby. When this happens, the other black-cappeds freeze in their positions, or even quickly take cover. When the “chickadee-dee” call, signifying “all clear” is given, the birds go back to their normal activities.

The black-capped’s “here fee-bee” call is a way of either letting others know of the bird’s territory, or it may be used to find a mate. In addition, a fainter “fee-bee” is used by the bird around its nest, or to communicate to little ones in the nest.

There is also a “gargling” call, which is an aggressive way to communicate dominance and territory to other chickadees.

Also, the black-capped youngsters in a nest, built by occupying a cavity in a tree, will communicate to predators who may look in. These nestlings elicit a hiss, or slap sound.

The chickadee-dee call is remarkable in and of itself. Along with communicating “all clear”, this call can either be a form of friendly communication with other birds, or is an alarm call. One way to tell the difference is that an alarm call is faster and more persistent. Also, the ending part of the “dee” call can have numerous numbers of “dees” attached. The higher the number of “dees”, the greater the danger.

Generally, the smaller sized hawks and owls are seen as a greater threat to the black-capped, because of of their greater maneuverability than the larger predators. These smaller predators also prefer small birds as part of their diet.

In some cases, the black-capped chickadee makes a call to mob a predator and in a lot of cases, other types of birds engage in the activity of mobbing or harassing a predator. These calls also have something to do with the amount of “dees” that are elicited and somehow include the size of the predator. Also, in cases of harassing a predator, the harassing comes when the predator is sitting in a tree and not flying.

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