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The Binocular Advisor

Chickadee Smarts

Life and love in the bird world

The clever chickadees are usually the center of the action.

Black-capped ChickadeeChickadees look smart, with their crisp, clean black-and-white pattern and their quick movements. Landing nimbly on a bird feeder, a chickadee cuts an elegant figure.

To most of us, all black-capped chickadees look alike. But scientific studies now show that chickadees recognize each other as individuals, just as certainly as we know our friends and family.

Chickadees in winter

In fall, with the nesting season over, the chickadees form small flocks of 6 to 12 birds, which share a winter territory. Each flock is composed of a few mated pairs, which will remain "married" as long as they both live, and a few young, unmated birds, called "floaters," who drift in and out of the flock.

There is a strict hierarchy. The top-ranking pair has first dibs on everything, and lower-ranking members of the flock give way to them at feeders or other food sources. This arrangement saves all the birds the effort of scrapping over status. It does not seriously handicap the lower-rank birds, because all members usually get enough to eat. It simply keeps the society orderly.

Floaters wander freely from flock to flock, always at the bottom of the ranking. However, if one of the mated chickadees dies, the survivor will accept one of the floaters as its new mate. Then the floater graduates to full membership in the flock, taking on the social status of its mate. If the deceased happened to be a member of the top pair, the floater rises from lowliest to high-and-mightiest in one swoop. It's like marrying into royalty.

Curious chickadees

Chickadees are quick to investigate anything new. Always exploring possibilities, chickadees are the first birds to discover a new food source. They will be the birds who figure out how to get the sunflower seeds out of a new hanging sphere at a backyard bird feeding station. Other birds will then copy their technique.

When they aren't visiting a feeding station, chickadees eat insects, small fruits, spiders and spider eggs, and the seeds of coniferous trees. Other small birds follow chickadees around in the woods, as if they know the chickadees are good at finding food.

Black-capped ChickadeeAs a result, a group of chickadees means other, rarer birds can be spotted are likely to be around too. One of the special delights of a winter walk is to get into the midst of a congregation of chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers, and other birds. The clever chickadees are usually the center of the action.

Text copyright 2007 by Diane Porter.

Bird photos copyright Michael and Diane Porter 1999-2007. (Diane and Michael took the photos on this page near their home in Iowa.)



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