That call universally demands attention. Everyone knows it by heart. These tiny birds are fearless. Kate says it’s good that they are so small, because if they were much larger, you wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley. They are fast, strong, and entirely focused.
At the feeder, chickadees don’t waste time. They arrive, select exactly one seed, and then fly off to cache it nearby—unlike the goldfinches that sit on the perch for long stretches, toss seed to the ground (they must have an alliance with the squirrels and doves), then eat without leaving their perch.
What is it about that call? A recent study (Marc Devokaitis, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee Alarm calls are a lingua franca of the bird world,” Living Bird [Winter 2023]) showed that it has a universal message: “intruder alert,” or “let’s mob the predator” are some basic translations. In the study, chickadee calls were played in foreign environments (Costa Rica, Columbia, and Brazil) to birds that have never seen a chickadee. The result was the same: 38 neotropical species recognized the alert and then mobilized to mob the intruder, coming within 5 meters of the playback speaker.
A close relative to the black-capped chickadee is the mountain chickadee, another bird that has been shown to display amazing intelligence. Their ability to not only cache food for the winter but remember the exact placement of each seed when needed (known as spatial memory) is redefining our understanding of the roles that intelligence and genetics play for survival in harsh, high-altitude environments. A foundation professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, Vladimir Pravosudov shares some insight from his groundbreaking studies: “Never mind that they are only black and white. Absolutely all chickadees are incredibly smart in terms of learning and memory. They hold more answers to cognition and adaptations to harsh environments than many more colorful birds.”
There is even some evidence that a female chickadee can discern the “dee-dee-dee” of a male high-elevation mountain chickadee from that of the lower-elevation birds of the same species. The high-elevation birds have shown superior spatial memory due to the evolution of an enlarged hippocampus with a higher neuron count. Carrie Branch, who works in Provosudov’s ornithology lab, began a series of studies in 2014 that showed “that high-elevation female Mountain Chickadees prefer high-elevation males; that high-elevation and low-elevation males sing different songs; and that females invest more resources in raising babies fathered by males with greater spatial memory abilities” (Rebecca Heisman, “Harsh Mountain Winters Have Made Chickadees Smarter,” Living Bird [Winter 2023]).
Chickadee in stick season is a 10 x 8 inch acrylic painted on a wood panel.