February 11, 2009
By Susan Benson,CNHM Director of Education
The smell of spring is in the air. I went for my first above zero temperature walk this weekend along the Namekagon River, and it was delightful feeling the sun on my face. I heard the sound of the blue jays, pine siskins, and evening grosbeaks. At the Museum’s Nestel property, I saw the most amazing cluster of fox tracks, bedding areas, and territory markings, everywhere in the parking area. Most exciting to me was hearing my first chickadee spring mating call.
"Fee bee ee" or "Hi, sweetie" is indeed the sweetest sound heard from chickadees throughout mid- to late-winter. Black-capped chickadees have a very sophisticated communication system that has over thirteen different vocalizations. According to research, the fee-bee song production increases once in the winter and once in the spring, and occurs almost exclusively at dawn, usually beginning in late December and then again later in the spring. Most fee-bee songs are sounded by males, typically from a perch at a distance from other birds. In addition to being used for mating purposes, chickadees will also sound this “sweetie” call when leading a flock, or to advertise their territory to keep their rivals away.
Research has shown that chickadees use variations of the “chick-a-dee-dee” call as they spot a lurking predator. Having tested fifteen predator species, researchers discovered that chickadees vary the call depending on how dangerous the predator might be. The greater the danger, the more “dee” syllables they add at the end of the “chicka”. When facing stationary predators, chickadees will voice the “chickadee” variation and sometimes mob together to harass the threat. When playing recordings of these varied alarm calls to chickadee flocks, researchers received mild or intense responses from those birds depending on the alarm call played. Surprisingly, great horned owls are not considered threatening because they are bigger and slower to a speedy chickadee.
There are other chickadee vocalizations, and listening to their voices gives the observer a peek into the complexity of chickadee behavior. If intrigued, it would also be worth trying to observe behavioral patterns such as postures and facial expressions in which chickadees participate. No further research is necessary, though, to enjoy the company of these wild backyard neighbors. Listen and look for this first taste of spring, not influenced by thoughts of the groundhog seeing his shadow, but by other signs nature has bestowed upon the north woods.
Chickadee Calls and Songs
“Chick-a-dee-dee”: Both sexes use this call to advertise a good food source, to signal "all is safe" when danger has passed, or to help separated flock mates find each other.
Added “dees”: Added at the end of “chick-a-dee” calls to alert others to danger.
The "Fee bee ee": These notes may be given before or during mating.
The “Tseet: A quiet, high note said regularly when a chickadee is undisturbed, and stops immediately when the bird is disturbed.
The “See”: Said quickly when they spot a predator, and then quickly flee.
The Gargle, or Ch'dle-ee: A call that occurs during territory disputes; there are at least fifteen gargle-type sounds.
Begging Dee: Young chickadees use this call when they see adults after they have left the nest as a way to say "feed me! feed me me!"
Broken Dees: Nesting females use this to ask their mates to bring food.
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.