Few birds bring me more joy than chickadees. Maybe it’s their tameness that I find so endearing, or that this diminutive bird sticks around Minnesota the entire year instead of flocking to southern climates in the wintertime. Whatever the reasons, there’s a lot to like about chickadees.
While Minnesota hosts two species of chickadees—black-capped and boreal—other chickadee species can be found throughout North America. In all, there are seven species of chickadees: black-capped, Carolina, mountain, gray-headed, boreal, Mexican and chestnut-backed. All are roughly the same size and share basic plumage patterns with varying degrees of coloration.
In the "Sibley’s Guide to Birds," the guidebook separates the species into three subgroups—chickadees, northern chickadees, and western chickadees. And of the seven species, no chickadee is more widespread than black-capped chickadees are. The delightful black-capped chickadee can be found in most of the continental United States, including Alaska and nearly all Canadian provinces.
I’ve had the privilege of observing four of the seven species of chickadees so far in my life. While enjoying black-capped chickadees nearly everywhere I’ve traveled, I have only encountered the other three species—boreal, Carolina, and mountain—in very specific locations. And of these latter three, it’s the mountain chickadee, in my view, with perhaps the most unique plumage pattern of all the chickadees. Usually quite distinctive, one look at a mountain chickadee and observers readily notice a white “supercilium” or stripe above the eye. No other chickadee has this distinct feature.
Chickadees are one of those rare birds that seem fearless when it comes to our presence, as anyone who feeds birds can attest. Each morning when I fill the bird feeder, it’s not uncommon to have chickadees land next to me. And when I have the patience, I can easily coax one to land on my hand to pluck a few black-oil sunflower seeds from my open palm. Indeed, it’s hard to beat the gratification and sensation of a wild bird delicately landing on one’s hand.
Those of you paying attention to the songs and calls of chickadees, especially the black-capped chickadee, have undoubtedly heard by now the species’ telltale “feebee” song, which is sung by only mature male chickadees and usually noticeable beginning in the month of January.
There are actually two fee-bee whistles: the loud version and the soft version. The loud feebee whistle is thought to be a territorial male song. The song’s other purpose may be a means to establish and sustain pair-bonds between courting male and female birds, whereas the soft, slightly slurred, version of the fee-bee song is delivered by both sexes. It is thought that the soft feebee song’s meaning depends on the situation it is used. The whistle apparently helps mated pairs orchestrate movements amongst themselves, a sort of “you-who?” or “I’m over here.”
Other fascinating chickadee characteristics have to do with behaviors that can’t be heard. That such small songbirds can survive North America’s harsh winters, especially those populations in Minnesota and further north, is hard to understand until you know how they do it.
Chickadees have evolved both behavioral and physiological tricks to counter severe cold by escaping into tree cavities and other natural shelters (sometimes birdhouses, too) and entering into mini-states of hibernation called torpor. What’s more, chickadees often do this in small groups, thereby taking advantage of the bodily warmth of partner-birds in what can be characterized simply as “huddling together.” Remarkable adaptations to say the least.
My delight in being around chickadees is one of life’s many pleasures. Given the pace of life and its many demands and stressors, what can bring peace to one’s soul quicker than being near a wild bird of such uncommon demeanor? I would argue that not many living creatures have this kind of power over us mere humans as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.