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Blane Klemek column: Singing along with the chickadee

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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Amazing. The "winter" has for all practical purposes come and gone and I never even noticed.

Many people have told me they have never experienced a milder winter, a winter with so little snow and with so many warm days and warm nights. Chances are we might never experience another milder winter here in northern Minnesota. But who knows for sure?

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What I can say is that for several winters in a row our winters have been very "non-Minnesota-like." These days I'm not certain I even know what a real Minnesota winter is.

Even so, a co-worker of mine recently installed a chickadee "roost box" outside our office building. It's an interesting structure that's a little smaller than a wood duck house and has a small hole toward the bottom of the box. Inside the box are a series of roosting pegs (dowels) that allow chickadees to roost together, out of the elements, while taking advantage of one another's body heat.

But whether any chickadees use the shelter this winter, some things don't seem to change at all -- phenologically speaking, that is. Yes, the proof is in the pudding. For almost two months now, whenever I feed the birds in my backyard or walk across the parking lot to my office, male black-capped chickadees readily answer my whistled renditions of their pleasing-to-the-ear "fee-bee" songs. It's a lovely whistle, easy to imitate, and, in the right situation, can get an entire flock of males competing with one another for whistling the best song.

I first became aware of the chickadee's fee-bee song many years ago while fishing for springtime trout on the Straight River near Park Rapids. Long into one morning I wasn't having much luck except for the outstanding success I was experiencing at drowning worms. The bait can on my belt was nearly depleted of trout food, while the creel draped across my shoulders contained nary a fish.

Having no luck, I had decided to recline on a grassy spot alongside the babbling brook and rest my eyes when a curious-acting chickadee alighted on the end of a jack pine limb right above my slumbering body. I remember groggily peering up at the bird, studying him and admiring him. Then suddenly he belted out his pleasant tune. It surprised me at first, for I was only aware of the bird's other well-known "chicka-dee-dee-dee" call.

Being a fairly good mimic myself when it comes to bird songs and calls, I attempted my first ever fee-bee song. Lo and behold, it worked admirably. Not only did my subject remain where it was instead of flying away, another bird answered back from the distance. As I continued the chorus, more birds answered and more birds came. I was soon surrounded by half a dozen or more male chickadees, all singing and all looking. Looking, I guess, for the imposter who started the melee.

The truth of the matter is, it's an exclusive club that whistles the fee-bee whistle; an all male's club, so to speak, sung by only mature male chickadees. That is, the loud version of the song. There are actually two fee-bee whistles: the loud version and the soft version. The loud fee-bee whistle is thought to be territorial male song -- a sort of advertisement, if you will -- which seems to suggest, "You're in my territory!" The song's other purpose may be a means to establish and sustain pair-bonds between lovesick males and females.

And there's something else about the fee-bee call. From a distance, the song sounds like a two-part melody. But in actuality, the song is delivered in three syllables. Up close you can pick out the third, though softer, "ee" part: "fee'bee-ee". As well, the pleasurable song is delivered over and over again, especially when other males (or you), are whistling the catchy fee-bee phrase, too.

The soft, slightly slurred version of the fee-bee song is delivered by both genders. It is thought that the soft fee-bee's meaning depends on the situation it is used. The whistle apparently helps mated pairs orchestrate movements between themselves, a sort of "You-who?" or "Where can I find you?" or "I'm over here!"

Its other use tends to occur around the nest-site when both pairs are tirelessly feeding their hungry and demanding youngsters. For instance, when the female approaches the nest -- usually a cavity in a tree or sometimes an artificial nest box -- she often emits a soft fee-bee prior to her arrival. Her call seems to announce, "I'm here, now it's your turn to go find some food!"

The entire chickadee vocal repertoire is actually quite diverse. I've already mentioned the whistled fee-bee song and the "chickadee-dee-dee-dee" call, but there are seven other distinct vocalizations that have been described as well. They are the: broken dee call, explosive hiss, tsleet, tseet, chatter call, high zee call and the gargle call, all of which have different meanings and different sounds.

And so it is, the black-capped chickadee, one of nature's finest creations, is out and about singing and calling to its heart's content. Wonderfully pleasing to our ears, the tiny year-round resident birds are everywhere throughout the Northland, singing once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

--

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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