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October 9, 2009

Listening to the Chickadee

Learn the language of a backyard favorite

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Chickadees are a welcomed favorite among backyard bird watchers. Scott Grant.

  • Chickadees eat insects, berries and seeds, like those of the sunflower. Scott Grant.

One of the most welcome visitors to backyards and bird feeders is the chickadee. Like most birds, chickadees communicate both vocally and visually. Chickadees are known to have “vocabularies” that include highly complex sounds. Scientists have categorized nearly two dozen sounds (vocalizations) that they believe are ways that chickadees communicate, both between individuals and also probably within small flocks.

“fee-bee”

The sound you are most likely to recognize while out in your yard is the familiar “chick-a-dee.” But chickadee specialists have labeled a second common vocalization the “fee-bee”—two clear and distinctive notes, the second somewhat softer than the first.

Chickadees use the fee-bee call most during spring, generally starting in late December. Males make the majority of fee-bee calls, typically from a perch and at some distance from other birds. They also use fee-bee when leading a flock or advertising territory and repelling possible rivals. Some scientists are determining whether each chickadee’s fee-bee is unique, which would mean that the call could be used by one chickadee to identify another.   It is impossible to read any of the detailed works on these birds and not come away convinced that they certainly do know each other as individuals.

An Introduction to Chickadee Songs and Calls

Chick-a-dee-dee : Male and female chickadees use this call to announce a good food source, help reunite separated flock-mates, or signal “all clear” when danger has passed.

The variable See: This high, thin note may be given by one or both birds before or during mating.

Broken Dees: Nesting females give this call to tell their mates to bring food.

Begging Dee: This call sounds like “feed me! feed me me!” It is given by young chickadees when they encounter adults after leaving the nest.

Tseet: This soft, high note is given continuously by undisturbed chickadees to communicate with one another. The call stops suddenly when the chickadee is disturbed.

Ch’dle-ee, ch’dle-ee: Typically given during disputes over territory or other aggressive situations, this call is one example of the chickadee’s gargle vocalization. Individual chickadees may have fifteen or more different gargles.

Want to Learn More?

Chickadee behavior is fascinatingly complex. From here we could go into the call known as the “gargle.” Or we could investigate postures and facial expressions , which are equally rich with meaning. But you really don’t need to study further to take pleasure in the company of these wild neighbors.

Additional Resource:

Susan M. Smith’s The Black- Capped Chickadee (Cornell University Press, 1991) is highly informative, authoritative, and enjoyable.

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