By Bill Lawyer
One of the healthful and fun ways to spend a cold, bare-treed winter day is to study the many species of birds that spend their winters around Rye.
For the beginner, nothing comes close to the black-capped chickadees. For one thing, they have bright, contrasting colors that make them easy to spot — black cap and bib, white cheeks; gray back, wings, and tail; and whitish underside with buffy sides.
For another, chickadees are quick to find backyard birdfeeders and they are not shy about eating as much birdseed as possible.
They are so popular that they have been designated the state bird of Massachusetts. And the High Park Nature Centre in Toronto, has put Jackie Day’s “Ten Reasons to Love Chickadees” on its website, highparknaturecentre.com. Check out Reason No. 1.
Chickadees are thoroughly acclimated to life in the northeastern United States. They have good roosting sites, ways to elude predators, and many food sources. Studies have determined they’re not picky eaters. Their winter diet includes half plant matter (seeds and berries) and half animal food (insects, spiders, suet, and sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses).
I’ve seen many incidences where people have trained chickadees to literally eat out of their hand, or from a tray that they hold out. This is a popular activity at nature centers and helps experts study the birds up close.
One of the other great things about chickadees is they make a call that actually sounds as if they’re saying “chickadee-dee.” In late winter and into spring, you’ll also hear their two- to three-note plaintive song that sounds like “fee-bee” or “hey, sweetie.” Maybe it’s just me, but what I hear is the romantic call of a chickadee suffering from unrequited love. And I’ve been hearing it bright and early as the sun is rising sooner these days and I talk my dog out for our first walk of the day. Their song reminds me that winter will be coming to an end, hopefully sometime soon.
Black-capped chickadees make a variety of calls depending on the circumstances. They’ll add a few extra “dees” if warning other birds of the threat of predators. (Hawks are quick to grab chickadees that linger too long at birdfeeders.) There are a number of YouTube videos in which you can hear them in full song. One I recommend was filmed while a chickadee was perched near the Seattle BirdCam (youtube.com/watch?v=iW4xXbiKCPo).
Climate change researchers have studied a variety of plants and animals to learn more about the impact of rising temperatures around the world. A March 2014 study of chickadees by researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Villanova University, and Cornell University confirmed that this delightful songbird, like many animal species, is expanding its range northward as annual temperatures rise.
Whether you want to do your own scientific studies, or just want to get more in tune with nature, stop, look, and listen for the chickadees right in your backyard.