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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand



It is January. The cold is numbing, and making that quick jaunt to the end of the driveway to grab the morning paper requires serious contemplation. Is it worth it? Is a brief, but bitter, foray into that windswept lunar landscape for a ream of depressing news and coupons that never get used, rational? No, not at all. Better to get a refill on the coffee and watch the chickadees from the window as they glean tidbits from the leafless shrubs in the backyard. After all, they are about the only birds around and they seem oblivious to the nasty weather. Thank goodness for chickadees!

But what kind are they? Our area is exceptionally rich in these odd little birds, in that four of the six species extant in North America are found here. This demonstrates how ecological rich our area is, as each of these diminutive fellows is able to subsist alongside the other without competing.  But what is especially fun about these birds is that you can call them and they will come to you! More on that later.  

All four of these feathered neighbors are members of the genus Poecile (formerly Parus), are residents (meaning that they don’t migrate) and are relatives of the titmice, which really are simply crested cousins—different genus, but same family.  They also all have to some degree that same distinctive call which gives them their name—chick-a-dee-dee-dee. First, let’s find out who is whom.

The most widely seen and probably easiest to identify is the Black-capped Chickadee. This one you will find at your bird feeder this winter. The matched black cap and bib are accented by bright white cheeks. The wing primaries, tail, and back are slate gray, whereas the flanks are a light, buckskin color. An interesting fact about this bird is that its warning call changes the closer danger approaches. For instance, from your deck the bird might acknowledge your presence with a chick-a-dee, but as you approach the feeder and the birds themselves, their warning call will increasing add dees, until you start hearing something like chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.  

The second most commonly seen is the slightly smaller Chestnut-backed Chickadee. This one is primarily a west coast bird, but also has a large presence in our area.  While it shares the black cap and bib of the Black-capped Chickadee, its name describes its most noticeable field mark, a rich, reddish-chestnut color that seems to frame in the dark wings from above and below. The breast is also often—but not always—more white than the dun-colored Black-capped, and its call is also less clear , though still recognizable as its larger cousins.  

The third one on our list is the Mountain Chickadee. This one is also common. It prefers conifers and ranges with the higher altitude forests from the Yukon down through New Mexico. At first glance the Mountain Chickadee seems to be less distinctive than the others, except for its prominent steely-gray and black coloring. But take notice of the white stripe above each eye . Think of it as a Black-capped with racing stripes. Once you identify your first Mountain Chickadee, you’ll never be confused again.

Last, but not least of these wee-sized birds, is the Boreal Chickadee. This one is probably the least common, though if you have them in your area you’ll probably see them as often as any other. This one prefers the taiga forests of Canada and Alaska, though its range dips just into our neck of the woods. As for field marks this one is quite eclectic. It has chestnut-colored flanks and a whitish breast, slate-colored wing, back, and tail and a definitively black bib. The most striking field mark, though it might not be apparent at first, is the brown cap which may or may not have black edging. Perhaps we could propose to the American Ornithologist’s Union to rename it the Brown-capped Chickadee. Not that the bird would care either way. But it is such a pretty little thing!  

So what is this about calling birds, specially chickadees? To begin with, chickadees are curious animals and they can be attracted by spishing. What is “spishing,” you might ask? Just as it sounds. Take a deep breath and then make a series of loud, rapid, plosive noises that sound like “spish.” It is sort of like calling a pig. You can also make smacking noises by elaborately kissing the air. My oldest son Jesse is a master spisher and he can quickly surround himself with chickadees and other curious little birds wondering about this strange creature making such infernal noises! The next time you are out in the woods or even in your backyard and see a few chickadees (or any other little bird) fluttering about, try it out. They’ll come running! I mean flying. Granted, they’ll quickly get bored, but for a brief time you’ll have your 15-seconds of feathered fame!

Photo by Lauren Burbank

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, chickadee, black capped chickadee, chestnut backed chickadee

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