A Tale of Two Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadee_Wenatchee-WA_LAH_3690While Black-capped Chickadees are familiar birds over the northern half of North America, Mountain Chickadees are a western specialty. True to their name, they care found at higher elevations from the Rockies westward to the Sierras and Cascades, and as far north as the Yukon.

Mountain Chickadees are also selective about their habitat, preferring to hang out in conifer forests. This is why we enjoyed them at our last house, where we were surrounded by ponderosa pines. Our current home is in a new neighborhood lacking mature trees. Hoping our old friends would still come and visit, we included two fairly large Austrian pines and a dwarfed cultivar of a limber pine, (Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’) in our new landscape. It took three years, but the birds are finally here.

Mountain Chickadee_BlkForestCO_20100324_LAH_1145

Our landscape also features several deciduous trees, something our previous lot lacked, plus an open space next door that’s full of Gambel’s oak. For the first time we have Black-capped Chickadees coming to our feeders.

As a result, I’ve had an excellent opportunity to compare the two species. Visually, it’s easy—Mountain Chickadees have a white stripe on their heads that Black-capped Chickadees lack. And unlike the Black-capped birds’ neat, well-defined “color blocking,” Mountain Chickadees are what I think of as scruffy. They look a bit mussed, as if they’re having a bad feather day.

Their voices match their appearance. Even beginning birders recognize a Black-capped Chickadees’ “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call. In comparison, Mountain Chickadees seem slightly hoarse, as if the difficulties that messed up their feathers also gave them a big of a cold. I’m not very skilled at identifying birds by sound, but I feel confident that I can now tell these two species apart.

Mountain Chickadee_PineBeachPicnicArea-LakeGranby-CO_LAHr_6950When it comes to behavior, the two birds are very similar. Both spend the warm months gleaning small insects and spiders from high in the trees, rarely holding still long enough for a frustrated photographer to focus and click the shutter. In winter, when live food is harder to find, they switch to seeds and berries. I’ve noticed that both species are happy to dine on suet and black oil sunflower seeds year-round. While some birds settle down on the feeder to munch away, chickadees tend to grab a seed and retreat to a nearby branch to peck it open and extract the meat inside.

Both chickadees are cavity nesters, mainly relying on woodpecker-excavated holes as their small beaks aren’t up to a major construction project. They’re also happy to take advantage of the nest boxes we provide, both for raising their young, and also for shelter during cold winter nights. But while Black-capped Chickadees roost together to share body warmth, Mountain Chickadees go it alone.

Black-capped Chickadee 5x7Black-capped Chickadees are social birds, with a remarkably advanced “language” of calls and songs. When a potential predator is spotted, the birds alert their neighbors with their eponymous “chick-a-dee” call. The more “dee-dee-dees” they tack on, the greater the perceived danger. I wonder if the other chickadee species have the same type of warning system.

In spite of their diminutive size, chickadees are surprisingly bold, and their curiosity often overrides their caution. Pishing brings them out to see what’s going on, and they aren’t particularly fazed by birders trying to get closer for a better look.

Our daughter’s father-in-law even got them eating out of his hand. He created a life-sized dummy, somewhat like a scarecrow, and dressed it in some of his old clothes. Using stuffed gloves for hands, he filled the palms with birdseed. Once the chickadees were comfortable with the fake person, he dressed himself in the same shirt and jeans, and filled his own palm with seed. Sure enough, the chickadees didn’t hesitate to grab dinner from the live “birdfeeder.”

Yup, chickadees are cute and friendly, and without any of the distressing habits that other species (such as cowbirds or jays) may exhibit. No wonder they’re so popular among backyard birdwatchers.

One thought on “A Tale of Two Chickadees

  1. I always joke with my husband that the mountain chickadees sound a bit like black capped chickadees who’ve smoked all their lives

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