Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Black-capped chickadees are amazing little birds

Last weekend, as I was refilling the hulled sunflower seed feeder, two rival male black-capped chickadees began their spring rivalry. Hidden from sight within the evergreen hedge we share with Al and Leona Hall, they surprised me. They always do even though this is about the time I begin hearing them every year. Even though the temperature was in the low 20s, it is late enough in the month for them to begin. Their song, is a high-pitched whistle two and three notes long, with the first being higher. It translates with little imagination into fee-be and fee-be be, and if, when you hear it and practice, you may well have an unsuspecting male (and sometimes, even a female) answer you. It may even show itself, because above all else, this little bird is inquisitive and not shy. It doesn't get its name from its fee-be song, but its not very musical chick-a-de-de-de call notes.

Attracting a chickadee by standing close to a familiar, but empty feeder with food in hand will, with a little patience, bribe one or more to perch upon a finger and grab a seed. I have been mobbed while refilling a feeder that was empty longer than the chickadees were accustomed to. In the early 1960s, a small group of us were birding at Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield (Ashley Falls) and, knowing what to expect, had a pocket of sunflower seeds, which to our delight the small flock gladly took from our hands. One of our triad, Norman Budnitz, had chickadees even taking seeds on the wing from his lips. Warden S. Waldo Bailey was at the helm from 1946 through 1963, and most likely responsible for the taming of the chickadees. During the latter 1950s, I would spend every Sunday afternoon I possibly could at the Cobble with him, his wife, Mary, and daughter, Priscilla, who followed in her father's footsteps respecting nature, especially birds, as part of the family.

Black-capped chickadees very rarely stay at feeders, except to grab a seed to eat elsewhere. And this holds true for already shelled or hulled seed. After being convinced by Paul Brennan of Windsor that seed for seed, hulled sunflower seeds, also called sunflower hearts, are no more expensive and far cleaner than the whole seed. Not necessarily so in the case of our chickadee that grabs one seed and flies off elsewhere to eat or store. Hulled is cleaner for the other feeder birds that perch at a feeder and eat one seed after the other, discarding the shell or more accurately, the hull. And while on the subject, Botanically, it isn't a seed, but a kernel or heart.

"Bird brain" isn't as much a put down as it once was; we now understand that birds are not so dumb after all. Take, for example, the black-capped chickadee hides away seeds and other foods, as does the gray squirrel that spends the autumn finding and hiding acorns for retrieval later. It is thought they cache (horde) far more acorns than they can find, hence the proliferation of oak trees. Unlike the gray squirrel, the chickadee remembers where it hides its much of its winter cache. The surprising thing is to do this, its hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory in many animals grows in volume by approximately 30 percent, hence it is able to store more information. Come spring when life gets easier, it returns to normal. More proof that nature is amazing!


We are wondering how many back-yard birders are getting pine siskins at their feeders this winter, where, how many, and preference.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of

The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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