Area birders are getting ready for the 110th annual Christmas Bird Count. It is an enjoyable activity - if the weather is not too cold - where groups of people are assigned to count all the birds in an area that they see in a given time. One of my favorite winter birds is the Black-capped Chickadee as they are so much fun to watch. Right now I have about 10 visiting my feeders. Here is an article I had published several years ago about the "Talking Chickadees." I hope you enjoy some wildness of Idaho.
“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee,” said a black-capped chickadee as a cat strolled across the lawn toward the feeder where several species of birds were feeding. They all flew off in a hurry.
The chickadee was soon back at the feeder, alone, feeding until a flock of blackbirds showed up hording the feeder again.
After a few minutes setting on a limb above the blackbirds, the chickadee again sounded the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.” The larger birds quickly left the feeder leaving the chickadee to enjoy the black oil sunflower seeds.
A recent study conducted by Christopher Templeton of the University of Washington and Erick Green of the University of Montana, found that black-capped chickadees has a complex language. Their study found the chickadee’s call may contain as many as 15 “dees” and the tone of the call indicates to other species what kind of predator is present.
In the study, Templeton and Green, examined the relationship between chick-a-dees and nuthatches by recording thousands of calls and how the birds reacted to them.
“In winter months, chickadees are faced with a wide variety of predators that vary tremendously in the amount of risk they pose,” said Templeton. “The nuthatch is able to discriminate the information from each call.”
The chickadee call has four types of syllables and can be uttered in different tones. When chickadees sees a predator, a warning call of a soft “seet” indicates a flying predator while a loud prolonged “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” warns of a perched hawk, owl or falcon said the study.
Templeton recorded the different calls of the chickadees to see how nuthatches would react to them. One of the defense maneuvers nuthatches have is of mobbing.
He attached speakers to trees where nuthatches lived, but where there were no chickadees so their actions would not tip off the nuthatches. The recorded alarm calls caused the nuthatches to form into mobs and attack the speakers.
The nuthatches acted accordingly to each distress call that was played.
“Their mobbing is not enough to kill you, but it is enough to make you want to go somewhere else,” said Templeton.
Another interesting phenomenon that black-capped chickadees have is their ability to hide, store and remember where they place hundreds of seeds. When food is abundant they will collect the food placing it behind pieces of bark, in cracks in trees and fill small crevices and cavities.
With the ability of warning other competitors about dangers, chickadees can send the false alarm causing larger birds to fly away, leaving the cheating chickadees to enjoy the food for themselves.
Birds in general respond to alarm calls of others, but the black-capped chickadee has apparently learned that “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee” will help it keep an adequate food supply.
I wonder if the bird world has a “wolf, wolf” story also.