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Column: Shuswap winters brighten with the song of black-capped chickadees

Nature Watch by John G. Woods
A Black-capped Chickadee inspects hikers along the Shuswap River. (John G. Woods photo)

By John G. Woods


I’m often asked to name my favourite bird.

I find this difficult because I don’t have a single species that lights up my imagination, but rather many different birds that I would need to list. However, if I was asked what bird makes me happiest, my answer would be immediate: the black-capped chickadee.

Since most birds migrate away from the Columbia-Shuswap during the winter, it is nature’s quietest time of the year. But luckily for us, whether it is 5 C and sunny, or a near blizzard at -20 C, chick-a-dee-dee calls are likely to break the winter silence. Common and conspicuously inquisitive, chickadees often turn the tables to “human-watch” as we trundle along. As they travel in groups of three or more, a close encounter of the chickadee kind is bound to give you a welcome dose of nature therapy to help you through the darkest days of winter.

While both male and females chick-a-dee-dee their ways through the seasons, starting in mid-winter and lasting through the summer, you will start hearing the chickadees make a totally different sound — their breeding song. While bird calls can have many functions – to draw attention or to warn of danger – bird songs have the dedicated function to defend a territory or attract a would-be mate. The breeding song for black-caps is a sweetly whistled two-noted fee-bee or sweet-eee with the second note on a lower pitch. While I can guarantee that almost everyone in the Shuswap has heard this delicate breeding season song, most people I’ve talked to are surprised that it comes from a black-capped chickadee.

Learning to identify bird calls and songs is a delightful challenge and the black-capped chickadee is a good place to start. I heard my first whistled fee-bees in early February and I’ll be listening for more of them to be singing as our days lengthen into spring. If you stop to listen carefully, you’ll also realize that they make many other sounds, not all of them easy to remember or convey in writing. For example, roving groups of chickadees are constantly making extremely high-pitched single notes – likely used for keeping in touch with other members of the group. This is often named the tsweet call.

The list of colourful words describing other chickadee vocalizations is long: the variable see, the hiss, the snarl, the twitter, the high zee and the gargle to name a few!

Although the black-capped chickadee is by far the most familiar chickadee in our woodlands, here in the Columbia-Shuswap we have three other species of chickadees, all with variations in their songbooks and chants. Within Salmon Arm, I hear or see about one mountain chickadee for every 10 black-capped. On the east side of our area towards the Columbia Mountains, chestnut-backed chickadees are common in cedar and hemlock forests. And at high elevations in the subalpine, we have boreal chickadees. While there are similarities between the songs and calls of these chickadees, each of these species has a distinctive voice that we can learn to decipher with practice.

As I make my way through this year, I’ll look forward to the many times that some form of chick-a-dee-dee-dee will brighten my day.
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