I was quite young when I first heard the characteristic chick-a-dee-dee-dee call that so many people know and love.
But it wasn’t until I began exploring nature more intentionally that I discovered chickadees actually have a whole variety of calls & sounds to signal different meanings depending on the situation.
For such a small bird, chickadees really do have a lot to say!
In fact, chickadee language is one of the most complex and fascinating in all the bird kingdom, with a whole variety of intelligent messages that listeners can interpret to better understand their natural world.
Some sounds are used to tell of the approaching spring. Others – where to look for nest & food locations in the larger ecosystem.
And chickadee alarm calls routinely give away the location of owls, hawks, house cats, springtime nest robbers & even sneaking humans!
One of the best things about all these exuberant chickadee sounds is unlike many songbirds who only bring messages during spring & summer, chickadees are year round residents.
This means that even after all the migratory songbirds have left northern forests for warmer climates, chickadee language is still extremely useful all winter long!
Most nature lovers are familiar with at least one or two of the chickadees more common vocalizations…
But after many years studying this bird, I actually believe there are 7 chickadee calls that everyone should know how to recognize.
So today I’m going to walk you through 7 useful chickadee calls that tell you what’s happening in your landscape.
These 7 calls are some of the most useful sounds to recognize in the forest, both for the beauty of their voices, and also because of what they mean!
Let’s take a look (and listen)!
1. “Chick-A-Dee” Call
The most well known call of the chickadee is their infamous name saying “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call.
In places where chickadees are common, this is possibly the most well known bird sound (aside from crow calls), easily recognized and loved even by non-birders.
Here’s what it sounds like:
This sound is extremely common to hear during feeding situations, or anytime there are groups of chickadees gathered together.
Many people think this name-saying chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee call is their song, but it actually has a very different purpose (we’ll get to chickadee songs soon).
This classic chickadee call is essentially used to help coordinate the movement & activity of two or more birds.
It helps to flag the attention of nearby flock members and communicate levels of urgency around food, movement, and even possible dangers lurking nearby.
Since this particular style of chickadee call is used in so many different contexts, it can also be one of the most confusing to discern the actual meaning.
If you listen carefully – you’ll notice this call provides endless opportunities for variety by placing emphasis on different aspects of the call.
If you hear a bunch of exuberant chickadees calling away like this in a group, you might easily think they’re upset or alarmed about something… However this isn’t always the case.
Sometimes it just means they found a great food source!
Luckily there are ways to tell whether this call is being used to announce a food source, or as an alarm call for predators.
It’s very important to have a way of telling the truth of chickadee calls, both when they are alarmed, and when they are NOT alarmed.
So that’s what we’ll look at next…
2. Alarmed VS Non-Alarmed Dees
For adventurers in nature, the chick-a-dee call is especially useful when we discover its common use for alarm situations.
If you can learn to recognize the chickadee alarm call, you’ll be able to locate other cool animals like owls, hawks & cats that normally sneak by unseen.
The general rule for identifying Chickadee alarm calls is extremely simple.
Next time you hear this characteristic chickadee-dee-dee call, simply count the number of “dees”.
As the number of dees increases, the likelihood of alarm, and severity of alarm also goes up.
Typically anything less than 4 or 5 dees is most likely not an alarm. But then as the dees become more than 4 or 5, it becomes more likely that you are indeed hearing an alarm.
For example: One of my old house-mates had a cat named Tully who consistently caused 12-14 dees whenever he walked out in the forest.
Whenever I wanted to find Tully, all I had to do was step outside and listen for that characteristic chickadee alarm and usually within a short period of time I could track him down.
Once you know how to listen for this call, it becomes pretty darn obvious when the chickadees are upset about something.
Here’s an example of a fairly intense chickadee alarm.
Notice they’re making the same name-saying call as shared in the first recording, but the number of dees has increased significantly.
Counting the number of dees is quite a reliable and simple trick, however there are exceptions to the rule.
I once watched a flock of chickadees briefly mob a resting barred owl and not a single one gave more then two dees in this scenario.
Normally such a small number of dees would not fall into the category of alarm, but I had been following the flock for about an hour at that point and there was an obvious change in their behavior when they reached the owl.
I think the reason this alarm was so subtle is because the owl was sleeping, and Barred Owls really don’t pose that much of a threat to chickadees.
The key to confidently discerning alarms is to not make snap judgements. Instead you need to look at the actual behavior trend you’re seeing.
In addition to counting the number of dees, you also have to look at clues like the number of chickadees that are actually vocalizing, the length of time this behavior continues, and the overall intensity of their behavior.
Notice in the example above there are lots of dees and multiple birds calling at the same time, and the behavior continues for quite some time.
These are all good clues to help you identify chickadee alarms.
3. Song (Fee Bee)
The “Fee Bee” song of a Chickadee is extremely common, especially during late winter and spring, but it’s amazing how few people can actually recognize this vocalization.
The challenge is partially because this two or three tone whistling Fee-Bee is so dramatically different from their name-saying call we heard above.
Some people just don’t realize that one individual bird can make so many different sounds.
In fact, sometimes when my naturalist students are reporting their observations about chickadees, they say things like “I also heard another bird nearby making a two toned whistle but they couldn’t find what it was.”
That’s because it’s the same bird!
So here’s what the chickadee song sounds like:
Notice the two toned whistle descending in pitch. In musical terms, this is known as a minor 3rd.
While this musical whistling pitch is a very reliable clue, there are some occasional variations that can happen (like adding a couple extra notes).
So even more important than the specific melody of their song is the actual tone of voice that chickadees use while singing.
Even when the notes vary a little bit, the voice itself will always carry the same timbre (tone quality) common to all chickadee songs.
Another clue if you ever hear a whistling song, but aren’t 100% sure whether it’s a chickadee… listen for whether you hear any other calls of chickadees in the same area.
It’s very rare to hear chickadee song without also catching some of their other calls thrown into the mix.
Luckily as far as bird songs go, the chickadee song really is one of the easiest to recognize and learn.
It’s yet another reason why chickadees are some of the best birds for beginners to study early on their bird language journey!
So Why Do Chickadees Sing?
Chickadee songs are used to announce territorial boundaries and attract females during the mating season.
However, while many songbirds sing exclusively during spring & early summer, you’ll notice it’s extremely common to hear chickadee songs even in the dead of winter while chickadees are still in their winter flocks.
In the case of winter chickadee songs, this is obviously not being used for mating purposes, but there might still be some element of territorial boundaries with rival flocks.
If you want to determine why a chickadee is singing, pay attention to contextual clues like time of day, seasonality & other associated behaviors.
This can help you identify winter flock territories and nesting territories, while also discerning the current stage of their yearly cycle.
4. Flock Calls & Companion Calls
Some of the most common calls made by chickadees are their soft little chips & tweets used to stay in contact as they feed in the trees.
Many people don’t even hear these little sounds because they’re so much quieter and less distinctive than the other calls chickadees make.
However, this is actually one of the most important calls to confidently recognize if you want to know what chickadees are saying.
In paired birds this sound would normally be called a contact call or companion call.
And here’s what it sounds like… Pay particular to the soft calls being made at the 0:45 second mark.
Now when you first start listening to chickadee companion calls, you might think it sounds extremely subtle (and in some cases it is).
However with a bit of listening and practice, these soft chattering rhythms will gradually become more obvious, especially when being made by multiple birds at the same time.
Since chickadees are so often seen moving in larger flocks, very often you’ll hear this call being made by 3 or more birds simultaneously.
When chickadees are making these soft contact calls in a group, it has a very particular rhythm and energy behind it that is very constant and reliable.
And it’s this simultaneous calling rhythm that really makes the calls stand out.
Chickadees use these flock calls almost constantly to keep in touch with the group while meandering through the forest feeding on little insects and edible treats.
In fact, very often the only time they break this constant chattering is when something dangerous interrupts their momentum, like a hawk.
This is where the chickadee contact calls become extremely useful for helping you to understand bird language.
Chickadee flock calls are extremely useful to identify the presence of hawks… not because of the calls themselves, but because of the interruptive pattern caused by nearby aerial predators.
Pay close attention to any sudden breaks or silence in their companion calling, as this can be a really great clue there’s some kind of predator in the nearby landscape.
Later we’ll have a listen to the aerial predator alarm, which when combined with a sudden break or silence of flock calls is a reliable indicator there’s a hawk nearby.
5. The Gargle Call
The gargle is another common mystery vocalization that is actually way more important to chickadees than most people realize.
Very often this call seems to blend in with their name-saying or other types of vocalizations so even experienced bird watchers with good knowledge of chickadees often miss it.
The gargle call is difficult to describe with words. It’s sort of like a garbled mixture of calls all mashed together with a light PING sound thrown into the mix.
See if you can hear the gargle in this recording:
In many ways, this gargle call actually functions more like a typical birdsong than their FeeBee vocalization that sometimes gets all the credit.
The gargle really doesn’t sound like a song, but it’s very closely linked with courtship & territorial behavior, both during nesting season and also during winter hierarchies in the flock.
I hear this sound very often when groups of chickadees are all crowded around an active bird feeder. When the males become too encroached on each other, they make this gargle sound as a little territorial huff.
The gargle also becomes more common around the spring nesting period when songbirds are singing at their peak.
For this reason, the gargle call is a sign of relative safety for the chickadees, and also an indicator of their stage of nesting activity… making this an extremely useful and under-valued call that everyone should know.
6. Fledgling Begging Calls
Later in the year as chickadees begin fledging their young nestlings, another call known as juvenile begging becomes very common.
This call is extremely useful to know because it only happens at one very specific life stage, and is associated with some very funny and fascinating behavior.
Young chickadees are still very new to the world. They haven’t yet learned to be afraid of larger animals.
Because of this naive worldview, it’s very common for chickadee juveniles to land on people and have lots of close encounters around this time of year.
Here you can see an example of juvenile begging from a chickadee.
The young bird will perch on branch making this quivering call, sometimes for long periods of time.
If you keep watching, pretty soon you’ll see the parent bird bring back food.
7. Aerial Predator Alarm Call
The aerial predator call represents an extreme and immediate danger from an aerial predator, very often a hawk.
The call itself is like a sudden burst of high pitched, rapid fire calls, that almost sounds like a variation on the chicka-dee-dee-dee call we looked at earlier.
This video shows both the sound and associated body language.
Notice the actual call itself happens quite quickly, so you have to be paying very close attention in order to identify this call live in the field.
This is another reason why I encourage people to really get comfortable with the flock calls mentioned earlier.
If all you do is listen for the aerial predator alarm, then you won’t have much reaction time when it actually plays out in the field.
However when hawks are nearby, there is always early warning evidence in the companion calls that registers simply as little pockets of silence interspersed with the beginnings of this particular call.
Learn The Chickadee Calls!
This is just a focused selection of the seven most important common calls that chickadees make.
There are certainly more calls than just these seven… however these are the most important sounds to help you gain practical insight about chickadees in the forest.
Whether you just love birds and want to appreciate them more deeply, or if you’re like me and find great thrill in eavesdropping on their conversations.
Master your ID of these 7 chickadee calls, and you’ll be well on your way!
Art Bliese says
Having lived in Wisconsin and now Florida, the Chickadee is one bird I really miss. Thanks for bringing back the memories with these calls. When hunting I would often sit and admire their quick movements and antics!
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for sharing Art!
Alex T. says
Thanks for writing up this piece, Brian, I really enjoyed it as I just love chickadees!
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for reading, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Thank you so much for writing this! I learned so much about chickadees!
Kevin Clements says
Extremely helpful. I will pass this on to a bird watching group. I will likely buy you ebook (s). Thank you.
Darlene Blasing says
Thanks for posting this. Very interesting. Lately I’ve heard another sound from the chickadees that sounds very much like a quiet goose call. I thought at first it came only from a particularly precocious pair, but this morning it seemed to be coming from several birds, and quite a bit louder. I love watching these little birds.
Sande Phillippi says
In reference to the (Fee Bee) sound, here in the Northeast, we grew up hearing the Fee Bee call as “Yoo Hoo” which we associate with “Where are you?”, which we use when looking for each other (as in the grocery store). Usually when hearing “Yoo Hoo” it is normally a single chickadee looking for it’s mate, and can happen at any time of the year.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for sharing Sande! I’ve never heard it called “Yoo Hoo” before, but there are probably dozens of different ways to remember the chickadee song.
Some of it will depend on which species of chickadee is most common in your area. But they’re all valid ways of remembering that sound!
I live in Florida and we have chickadees at our feeder all day. If I’m not mistaken isn’t one of their calls
“Hey sweetie” or is that the call of one of our other birds?
Brian Mertins says
“Hey sweetie” is another common way of describing the chickadee song. I called it “Fee Bee” in the article above, but it’s all just about what helps you remember. Someone else in the comments mentioned that know it as “Yoo Hoo”.