• Scott Tansowny

Understanding the Language of Chickadees

Updated: Apr 21


Photo by Rodney Campbell

The black-capped chickadee is found throughout most of North America and throughout the entire province of Alberta. These energetic, bold, and curious little songbirds can be heard any day of the year, communicating with their diverse repertoire of vocalizations — but what are they saying?


Luckily, the vocalizations of the black-capped chickadee have been studied extensively and we have a pretty good idea of what they mean. So, if you listen carefully, you just might get an idea of what a black-capped chickadee is trying to say and start to understand the language of chickadees.


Tseet Call


This call is the most frequent call used by black-capped chickadees and is used by both the males and females as a contact call. The purpose of this call is thought to be for advertising the caller’s location to nearby birds¹ and for keeping pairs and groups of birds from being separated while foraging.² The tseet call is a very quiet call so it is only effective at close range.³ A 2011 study found that young chickadees need to hear this call in order to correctly use it. It is a learned call.⁴


This call can be heard in my recording from the Grey Nuns White Spruce Park in St. Albert, Alberta.


Fee-Bee Song


This distinctive chickadee song is heard from late winter into spring but can occasionally be heard throughout the year. It’s the song that males use to declare territories and find mates. The song is a two tone whistle that decreases in pitch on the second tone. If you listen closely, the second tone is broken making the song more of a fee-bee-ee.


All day this song can be heard but it is most consistent at dawn when a male chickadee can continually sing for up to an hour, a 2005 study finding the average length being about 45 minutes.⁵


You can hear the song in this recording I took near Barrhead, Alberta.


Gargle


This is a less understood chickadee vocalization that consists of many different notes. It is actually a learned vocalization and varies from location to location, from year to year, and even from bird to bird. It is primarily given by males and may mean any number of things including letting other chickadees know to stay away from their territory or communicating ownership to a food item. Gargles are even thought to be used as a second song along with the fee-bee song.⁶ Many species of chickadees such as the boreal chickadee do not have a “song” like the black-capped so this gargle is thought to be those species’ only song.


This vocalization can be heard in the following recording by Kevin J. Colver from Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML51144).


Here is another variation of a gargle that I took, from Edmonton, Alberta.



Chick-A-Dee Call


You can hear the call in this recording I took in Alberta’s boreal forest near Whitecourt. You can also hear a scratchier chick-a-dee call of boreal chickadees in this recording.


This is the call that gives the chickadee its name and it is a very interesting one. This call is used to communicate many different things; it can be a call of an individual separated from its flock, an invite to other chickadees to come help mob a predator such as an owl, an “all-clear” signal after a predator is gone, or a message that a food source has been found.⁷ The one common attribute of the variations of this call is that it typically means “come here”.


The vocalization consists of four notes and is one of the few combinatorial systems of vocal communication found in animals, likening it to human communication.⁸ Basically, black-capped chickadees use these four notes in different combinations and different numbers of repeats (ex. many dees at the end vs few dees at the end) to change the meaning of the communication. This is similar to how, in human language, rearranging sounds of a word or words of a sentence completely changes the meaning. For example, “change the order” means something different than “order the change” and “order change the” doesn't mean anything.


One interesting characteristic of the chick-a-dee call is that when chickadees are mobbing a stationary predator, the number of dees at the end of the call signifies what type of bird is being mobbed. Templeton (2005) found that when chickadees were mobbing smaller, more agile predators that pose a bigger threat — such as northern saw-whet owls northern pygmy-owls — more dees were present in the call.⁹ Typically, five or more dees will let you know that there is a perched predator nearby.


The following is a recording on the chick-a-dee call while mobbing by Robert C. Stein and Charles A. Sutherland from Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML14646). The mobbing was in response to C. A. Sutherland’s screech owl imitation call.


High Zee


The last call I will discuss is the high zee. Similar to the chick-a-dee call, this call is used as an alarm call. Unlike the chick-a-dee call which is typically used to recruit other chickadees to mob a perched or stationary predator, the high zee is used when a flying raptor is detected.¹⁰ If you hear this call, look up because there is probably a flying raptor nearby!


This call can be heard in the following recording by Steven R. Pantle from Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML117803). The rapid high notes are the high zee call.


Closing


The black-capped chickadee is an amazing bird with plenty to say and the more you understand their language, the greater connection you’ll have with these wonderful songsters. So next time you’re in your local forest or park, take a listen to what the chickadees have to say. Hopefully you’ll now better understand the language of chickadees.


1. Ficken, M. S., Ficken, R. W., & Witkin, S. R. (1978). Vocal repertoire of the black-capped chickadee. The Auk, 95(1), 34-48

2. Guillette, L. M., Bloomfield, L. L., Batty, E. R., Dawson, M. R., & Sturdy, C. B. (2011). Development of a contact call in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) hand-reared in different acoustic environments. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 130(4), 2249-2256.

3. Guillette, L. M., Bloomfield, L. L., Batty, E. R., Dawson, M. R., & Sturdy, C. B. (2011). Development of a contact call in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) hand-reared in different acoustic environments. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 130(4), 2249-2256.

4. Guillette, L. M., Bloomfield, L. L., Batty, E. R., Dawson, M. R., & Sturdy, C. B. (2011). Development of a contact call in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) hand-reared in different acoustic environments. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 130(4), 2249-2256.

5. Foote, J. R., Fitzsimmons, L. P., Mennill, D. J., & Ratcliffe, L. M. (2010). Black-capped chickadee dawn choruses are interactive communication networks. Behaviour, 1219-1248.

6. Dixon, K. L., & Stefanski, R. A. (1970). An appraisal of the song of the Black-capped Chickadee. The Wilson Bulletin, 53-62.

7. Foote, J. R., Mennill, D. J., Ratcliffe, L. M., & Smith, S. M. (2010). Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), version 2.0. The Birds of North America. Edited by PG Rodewald. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, 10.

8. Hailman, J. P., Ficken, M. S., & Ficken, R. W. (1987). Constraints on the Structure of Combinatorial “Chick‐a‐dee” Calls. Ethology, 75(1), 62-80.

9. Templeton, C. N., Greene, E., & Davis, K. (2005). Allometry of alarm calls: black-capped chickadees encode information about predator size. Science, 308(5730), 1934-1937.

10. Templeton, C. N., Greene, E., & Davis, K. (2005). Allometry of alarm calls: black-capped chickadees encode information about predator size. Science, 308(5730), 1934-1937.


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