A Bird’s tale

Listening in to Nature’s Soundscape

Wed, 03/18/2020 - 10:15am

The clear, whistled “fee-bee” song of the black-capped chickadee gives many of us hope for the return of spring. Especially if we begin hearing it on sunny days in late January and February when, despite the bright sunshine, it is still bone-chillingly cold. We have been enjoying hearing these black-capped chickadee songs with increasingly regularity these last few weeks from birds in our yard and across the neighborhood. We were listening this morning more intently and could hear one bird closely matching the “fee-bee” of another. One sang from the crabapple in the front yard while a second sang from the lilac 30 feet away in the backyard. Very occasionally, we would hear a song phrase that didn’t match as well. 

Chickadees, like many birds, are well known to match the songs of their neighbors as a sign of territoriality. It’s like showing your competitor that you are just as good as he is at singing AND that you can hear him now and that he better hear you and stay in his own space. Females apparently sing as well but less regularly. We wondered whether the bird we heard occasionally singing at a different starting pitch was not one of the two competing males but instead a female, but who knows? Chickadee males and females can’t be distinguished by human eyes. 

We tried imitating the birds a little ourselves to see how they would respond and even tried starting a song at a different pitch to see if we could get them to try to match our song. 

Needless to say, they apparently ignored us. 

It was funny to hear the way the two birds seemed to take care not to overlap their songs, waiting until the other bird’s phrase was done before starting. This is also common in many other bird species. Some recent studies seem to indicate that individual birds are quite aware of not only the songs of the singing male they are competing with but also other sounds. In other words, they seem to avoid song overlap with their rivals as well as with some other sounds—perhaps a garbage truck roaring by, or a different species bursting into song, like a tufted titmouse—to keep their own songs from being acoustically blunted. 

Unlike many other songbirds, black-capped chickadees don’t show much variation in their “fee-bee” song across their extensive range, which covers much of the continent. The only exceptions to this are birds on some islands that have developed unique songs. We’ve noticed that the chickadees we have heard on Monhegan Island have an “accent” on certain vocalizations. Their accent is one we don’t hear from black-capped chickadees on the mainland.

As we listened in on the communication going on among the chickadees in our yard, we felt joy in hearing their recognition of spring approaching. There was also a sense of mystery knowing that we knew so little of what they understood of each other’s songs and calls. 

We hope you get a chance to do some eavesdropping on nature’s soundscapes this week as well and that it will give you, like it does us, a sense of peace and joy even when our human world seems chaotic. 

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).