In many places chickadees are one of the most common birds.
This is good news because they’re also a great bird for practicing bird language.
Let’s explore some ways to listen in on their conversations and understand what they’re telling us.
This article explains how to glean some great information from these tiny flockers.
Or you can watch the video and hear it straight from my mouth.
Lessons From Chickadees
Chickadees have one of the most unique and varied vocal repertoires of all passerines.
They’ve been widely studied because of their complexity and are one of my absolute favorite birds to learn when it comes to bird language.
One of the reasons I like them so much is because they stick around even in the thick of winter.
They’re great alarm birds for things like owls and hawks and they’re extremely vocal. They’ve been known to mob a cat on occasion too!
The vocalizations of chickadees are fairly unique amongst passerines but when you tune into their sounds they have some amazing lessons to teach about bird language as it applies to all birds.
These little flockers really taught me how to tune into companion calls.
I’ll also note that even though there are differences between the various types of chickadees, in most cases their vocalizations work pretty much the same from species to species.
The lessons learned from a boreal chickadee will transfer over fairly well to a black-capped chickadee.
Chickadee Companion Calls
When it comes to Chickadee vocalizations, the first thing we need to know is that their language revolves almost entirely around the companion call.
When you go outside and you find a group of chickadees or especially a flock, the first thing you might notice is that they’re almost always chattering away to each other.
These are fairly small birds and when they’re in the thick firs it’s hard for them to see one another.
Chickadees therefore have adopted this strategy of constantly chattering away while they feed and move about their territories.
The big secret with chickadee language is that if you tune into this sound as a basic anchor point for your ear then you’ll also find it really easy to notice all the other subtle and not so subtle blips away from this baseline pattern.
This ceaseless chattering is of course their companion call.
They have other calls that function as companion calls (such as the “chick a dee” call in certain contexts) but the chattering is the most consistent and common one to hear.
Once you’re tuned into it then there are some other vocalizations to listen for that you might hear interspersed to their chattering frenzy.
In the following recording you’ll hear some light chattering and various other subtle calls mixed in to the general energy of the vocalizations.
Aggression calls sound like brief garbles interspersed within the chattering of the chickadee companion call. Unless you know what to listen for you might not even notice it.
These sounds are commonly heard at bird feeders when all the food is located in a very small area.
As far as interpreting chickadee language these aggression calls aren’t particularly important. You’ll notice that these garbles of sound don’t really interrupt the overall energy of the companion calls.
It’ll be just a moment of sound and you’ll hear that something was different but the birds never actually interrupt their normal behavior.
This call therefore isn’t likely to be confused with alarms but it is a cool one to know.
It’s fun to notice and try to figure out why on some days the chickadees are a lot more aggressive than other days.
“Chick a dee” Calls
This is the classic sound that people often think of as being associated with chickadees.
A lot of people think the “chick a dee” sound is a song but in actual fact the song is a melodic “Fee Bee!”.
Here’s the Fee Bee song:
And here’s the “Chick a dee” sound:
The “Chick a dee” sound is probably the most variable chickadee vocalization with the potential for confusing a bird language observer.
This is because it’s used frequently as a companion call of sorts as well as an alarm for things like owls and cats.
In practical terms, all you really need to know in order to determine companion call vs alarm with this sound is that the vocalizations get more insistent and there will be a greater number of “dees” in the case of an alarm.
If you hear this vocalization and you see the birds are still feeding and it doesn’t seem that there’s anything dangerous happening, then they’re probably just coordinating their movements or talking about a food source.
If on the other hand you hear a group of them making the call and it’s localized in one place and it goes on for a while then you might want to check it out and see if you can spot something.
With a bit of listening you’ll get a feel for what constitutes an alarm and what is a companion call with this vocalization.
In my experience this call is much more frequently a companion call but I always check it out when I feel suspicious.
Aerial Predator Alarm
The chickadee aerial predator alarm pops out like a sore thumb when you tune into the chattering companion calls of a feeding group of chickadees.
If you’re listening to them all merrily feeding and chattering away, then all of a sudden their vocalizations just stop… You might see birds diving into cover and if you listen you might hear a very high pitched “see see seet!” alarm.
If it stays quiet then there might be a hawk nearby.
If they quickly go back to their chattering then maybe the hawk just flew through momentarily in the distance.
Or I’ve also seen them respond this way to crows. As soon as they realize it’s just a crow then they relax and go back to feeding.
This vocalization is quite common and it can be challenging to always find the source.
The chickadees where I live will alarm at a Northern Goshawk from over 400 ft away in some cases. If you’re not paying attention then it could be easy to miss the predator of interest but keep tracking it and eventually you’ll figure out what’s going on.
And there you have it!
This should serve as a basic guide to tuning into the vocalizations of chickadees and starting to gain some real certainty about what constitutes normal behavior and what is an alarm.
A good practice can be to go through the Macaulay library of chickadee sounds where you can practice tuning in to the harmonic chatter of chickadees.
See if you can catch those moments when things shift and something different happens. You’ll also hear many recordings of chickadee songs.
There’s a lot of meaning to be gleaned from an exercise like that. Have fun!