Monday, September 8, 2014

The Language of Chickadees

We woke this morning to heavy rain, the first wet pounder after several weeks of hot & dry weather.  Native to the wet side of the Pacific Northwest, we find this a source of rejoicing.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
So does the world outside of our windows.  As I sit snuggled up in a warm fleece blankie, a small flock of chickadees shows up in the big picture window.  One works its way through the rhododendron beneath the window, picking off scale insects.  Another is using its tiny beak to glean out minute insects from between the shreds of moss that coats the branches.  As I look out the window beyond the rhododendron, I see several chickadees, working almost as a team, methodically providing insect removal service to our yard.  The yard is full of chick chick chick contact calls, as they keep in touch with each other.  The wet conditions deter them not at all.

We have a long relationship with chickadees.  For many years we had a tube feeder stuffed full of their favorite black oil sunflower seeds.  We kept it going year around, and the chickadees were very aware of this.  And on some level, they seemed to recognize us as their neighbors. They seemed to know we lived in the house and that we were no big threat. They also seemed to know that the tall lanky human guy was the one to refill the feeder. Over time they trained us to take care of them.  Here is an example:

In winter, chickadees take their time getting up.  I remember many weekend mornings while we were still in bed, hearing the small local flock of chickadees moving slowly alongside the wall outside our bedroom window.  They were working through the native yew and rhododendrons, quiet sleepy chick chick noises marking their progress.  We knew that their ultimate goal was the front yard, where the tube feeder of sunflower seeds sat.  This was a reliable source of breakfast food.

Every once in a while, the tall lanky guy neglected to fill the feeder.  When the chickadees rounded the corner of the house and discovered this serious betrayal, the sleepy contact noises burst into loud, imperative CHICKa dee  CHICKa dee CHICKa dee as they registered their deep unhappiness with this state of affairs.  But through the course of many years together, we had learned their language. That call was enough to get the lanky guy out of bed, into enough clothes to venture outdoors, where he filled the feeder.  The complaints then stopped, forthwith.

I remember one spring I was laid up with a bad knee, awaiting joint replacement surgery.  I spent a lot of time sitting around that spring, waiting for the operation that would give me relief and make me mobile again.  During that spring we put up a chickadee nest box on the front of the house, near our rarely used front door.  Our invitation was promptly accepted by a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, though they had to put a vigorous fight with others of their kind in order to “win” the box.

These chickadees entertained me during that long period of waiting.  I watched them ferry in beaks full of shredded moss to line their nest.  They were pretty sneaky about it:  they would fly into a nearby bush, moss hanging every which way out of their beaks.  They would lurk and look carefully around, very wary, before finally making a mad dash into the depths of the nesting box.  This went on for a few days and finally the nest was done.  From the outside, it appeared to be deserted, but looks were deceiving.  One of the pair was sitting in the box, quietly incubating a clutch of eggs.  The male often found a hidden perch high in a tree nearby.  He would sing a distinctive, mournful DEEE, Deee, dee, a series of notes in a minor, descending scale:  this is the distinct call of breeding chickadees.  As he sang (incessantly) and she sat, the eggs finally hatched and after a few days we would hear tiny peeps as the adults took turns, flying in to stuff their begging maws.

The nesting chickadees seem to get to know us and also knew the usual pattern of visitors to the yard.  For example, the postman always delivered to the wall slot just under the chickadee box.  The birds were not thrilled about his daily incursions but they accepted it with a quiet alarm call.  This call was distinctive: from inside the house I recognized it and would get up and check the mailbox.  They were always right.

They were more unhappy about cat visitors.  Our next door neighbor had a young hunting cat who regularly prowled the yard and killed birds.  The chickadees knew this cat and whenever it appeared, they would let loose a loud volley of Chick a DEE chick a DEE chick a DEE!!  When I heard that call, I knew to get up and chase off the cat.  After a couple of times, the chickadees knew I was available to provide this service and I believe they came to rely on me.  Who was training who, anyway?

While the cat was a serious threat, we had put the nesting box high up on a wall where it was out of the reach of cats, so there was no real risk.  However, the biggest threat to the young nestlings was Stellar’s Jays:  these are large birds who regularly prey on other birds’ eggs and nestlings; they of course fly and can reach into the nest box,  and the chickadee parents are very aware of this.  When the Stellar jay flocks made their circuit through the yard, the chickadees would sound their own version of screaming chickadee hysterics: CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEE CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEEE!!!!!!.  I heard that shrieking and jumped from my chair, chasing off the jays and once again earning my keep in the eyes of the chickadees.

Over that spring, I learned the different calls and was able to predict what the problem was even before I opened the door.  Sometimes I got a mixed message: one day I looked out the window saw Stellar’s Jays, but the call from the chickadees signaled a cat.  I opened out the door and watched the jays attacking the cat, who was attempting to hunt for one of their nestlings.  Jays have seriously long sharp beaks and the flocks they live in are only too happy to go after prowling cats.  As I looked out, it was clear to me that all of us: jays, chickadees and me were really enjoying the sight of the overfed cat put to scrambling, panicked flight.

After a few weeks, the hatchlings fledged and the nest box was empty once again.  But throughout the year, the chickadees continued to glean in our yard, to come to the feeder, speaking their own language and allowing us a window into their lives.  It remains one of my favorite memories as a bird watcher.

Janet Partlow
•  Photos by Nancy Partlow
•  Short YouTube by Nancy Partlow:  Chickadees at a nest box  (Mason bees in foreground)
•  The Black-capped Chickadee by Susan Smith.  A wonderful book on the lives of these birds.  

1 comment:

  1. Janet,

    I really enjoyed your post about the language of Chickadees. I've begun to recognize the alarm calls of different birds in my yard that indicate a cat is in the yard, including the Stellar's Jays. What joy birds bring to my life!

    Deb Jaqua