Foam Lake Birding No. 23

No. 23
We are now in what can best be described as the “doldrums of birding”. Pretty well all of the summer residents and the transients have flown south, but the winter residents have not yet arrived. What we are left with are the year round (permanent) residents. Permanent residents tend to go unnoticed, especially in the summer; but in the late fall (middle of October to the end of November) they are really appreciated as they are the only “game in town” as it were. There actually are a surprising number of permanent residents in our area.
One such resident, this week’s featured bird, really needs no introduction. The friendly and confiding Black Capped Chickadee is well known to just about everybody. I am sure that in the winter every backyard in town has a Chickadee or two visit it every single day. It has three distinct calls. First, when foraging, it often utters a two note tee dee. Second, in spring it makes a two part whistle with the second part being shorter and lower. It has been translated as “spring’s here”. Third, its most common call is a clear chicka-dee-dee. In fact, it gets its name from this last call.
Black Capped Chickadees belong to a group of birds that are common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, the ones with crests are called titmice and the ones without crests are called chickadees; in Europe, they are all called tits. For example, there is one Eurasian member of the family that crossed the Bering Sea and now nests in parts of Alaska and the Yukon as well as the Old World. In Europe it is called The Siberian Tit; in North America, it is called the Grey Headed Chickadee (formerly the Siberian Chickadee). Why? Our North American sensibilities find the European word “inappropriate”! Therefore, Chickadees it is. In North America, there are about a dozen members in the family, but it is hard to put a number on it exactly because ornithologists keep changing their minds as to whether some are merely races or full species.
In Canada, there are five species of chickadees and one titmouse. Locally, there are no titmice, but there are two chickadees – one very common and one very uncommon. Even though the chickadees in Canada can be easily differentiated, they are very similar in colour, behavior, vocalizations and physique. In general appearance, all chickadees are “big headed” sparrow sized birds with black caps and white faces; all have similar calls; all are very acrobatic and often hang upside down when feeding; all are omnivorous eating insects, suet, peanut butter, seeds and more. This flexibility in diet allows them to survive very harsh winters.
When several chickadees come to a feeder, they follow a strict pecking order as to who gets to the food first. First, one comes and picks up a seed and flies away to eat it; then, a second does the same; then, the third and so on. As soon as the first one finishes it comes back to the feeder and goes to the “front of the line”. Once again, the rest wait their turn. Because the sexes are identical it is impossible to determine who the “boss” is. With patience they can be coaxed to eat out of one’s hand. It would be worth a try.
As mentioned earlier, all chickadees appear to have dark caps, white faces and make similar vocalizations. Two winters ago, (2006-2007), there were three Boreal Chickadees in town. Several people, including ourselves, had them at our feeders daily all winter. The casual observer would not have noticed the difference between these rare visitors from the north and our Black Capped version. What are the differences? The Boreal Chickadees have dark brown caps and brownish sides and backs. I was fortunate enough to get several good photos of the Boreals. Because the Black Capped is usually the only one found here, I refer to it simply as the Chickadee.
Chickadees nest in the damaged areas of larger trees that have broken down because of old age or high winds. I suppose it could be described as an “almost” birdhouse. Rarely, they will nest in old woodpecker holes or even birdhouses, but it would be a waste of time trying to entice them to nest in a birdhouse. Watching a family of Chickadees feeding is a memorable event. The juveniles, stubby-tailed grey balls of hyperactive fluff, are especially cute. To witness such an event, one has to take to the deeper woods, because Chickadees nest away from the proximity of man. However, at this time of year the young have matured and come to our yards as adults.
So on a very cold, and often depressing, winter day, a few energetic and cheerful Chickadees can pick up one’s spirits. They never disappoint as depressed Chickadees are unknown.