Whenever I’m in the Rocky Mountains of northwest Colorado, I’m always delighted to be in the presence of not just one species of chickadee, but two—the ubiquitous black-capped chickadee, which range across all of North America, and the not-so-common mountain chickadee, which occurs in mountainous habitats of the West.
One popular field guidebook of birds that I frequently use, notes that of the seven species of chickadees that occur in North America, only the black-capped chickadee and mountain chickadee occur in the same year-around habitat together. Another field guidebook relates that only in mountain habitats of the Northwest do more than one species occur together.
I’d argue that boreal chickadees, a species restricted to boreal forests of the far north in Canada and Alaska, including in a northern sphere of Minnesota, also occupy the same habitat from time to time with black-capped chickadees, and in fact they do according to some sources. The remaining four North American species of chickadees include the Carolina, Mexican, Siberian tit, and chestnut-backed.
Chickadees as a whole are very similar in appearance and size to each other, yet all are subtly different from one another in plumage coloration and markings, in addition to notable differences in vocalizations. Obvious differences also include habitat and geography. Yet, from this continent’s northernmost reaches to its southern extent, as well as from east to west, there exists a species of chickadee for everyone to enjoy.
All chickadees share a similar trait—their propensity of being a relatively tame wild bird. Few birds exist that allow our close contact. The skittish blue jay, for example, though attracted to our backyard bird feeding stations, will scatter at the mere sight or sound of us, yet birds like chickadees don’t seem to care whether we’re near or far. In fact, quite often is the case that chickadees’ curious nature predisposes them to seek us out. After all, many of us feed wild birds and this act alone has undoubtedly endeared us to the species, and certainly vice versa.
So docile and inquisitive are our own black-capped chickadees, that I’ve had many of them land on me, including my open palm as I’ve held out my hand while cupping black-oil sunflower seeds near the bird feeders. I can think of few other pleasures and privileges more enjoyable than having a wild bird alight on me. I’ve also had chickadees land on my lap and on my hat. One bird that descended on top of my hat, hopped down to the bill of the cap and then peeked down at me. When I glanced up, I saw the upside-down head of a chickadee momentarily looking into my eyes.
Chickadee species are all about the same size—around 4 ¼ inches from beak to tail. And they all have the same basic body design, bill shape, and plumage patterns. All of them are black-bibbed and dark-capped, and all are especially acrobatic and friendly. Interestingly, one feature that only the mountain chickadee possesses is a diagnostic trait that readily identifies this species. The mountain chickadee is the only chickadee with a white eye-stripe.
As mentioned, chickadee species’ dialect, though similar to one another amongst all seven species, are different.
For instance, whenever I’ve encountered mountain chickadees I’ve been struck by this fact, but at the same time I’ve been pleased and fascinated by the remarkable similarities to the more familiar black-capped chickadees’ vocalizations. Both species—the black-capped chickadee and mountain chickadee—emit the telltale call-notes and “fee-bees”. However, at least the way my ears interpret the differences, mountain chickadee calls and songs are emitted more softly than the black-capped chickadee’s calls and songs are.
Indeed, chickadees get their name because of the sounds they make, particularly their alarm call, including the alarm call of the chickadee that is commonly known as the Siberian tit, but also known as the gray-headed chickadee.
We’ve all heard the distinctive alarm call of the black-capped chickadee—“chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!”
An interesting factoid about the alarm call is that the more “dees” there are at the end of the call translates to increasing distress.
Over the years I’ve written many a story about the lovable chickadee and I’ve never grown tired of the company of this little forest friend. From north to south and east to west, chickadees are everywhere as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at firstname.lastname@example.org.