The chickadee seemed as cheery as a robin singing when the sun is coming up on a bright spring morning. But it was anything but a bright spring morning. It was just a few days ago, late fall, near Thanksgiving. The sky was dull gray, the temperature 30 degrees and frost covered the grass and leaves on the ground around me.
Everybody who recognizes a robin must also recognize a chickadee. They’re widespread and common. They’re the little birds with black caps, black bibs, white cheeks and breasts, and gray backs, wings and tails. They’re the perky little birds that flit from tree or bush to your bird feeder, eat a few seeds, snatch one or two more and fly to a nearby bush or tree. Aldo Leopold, early conservation writer and teacher, trapped, banded and studied nesting ranges of chickadees and described one as “just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat.”
Chickadees are North American birds, all but two. The chickadee calling to me that frosty, gray morning was a black-capped. Its range is from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from approximately the middle of the U.S. north into Canada as far as there are trees. The Carolina chickadee, as its name indicates, is more southern. Its range is from the Atlantic west across most of Texas and from the Gulf north, its range overlapping that of the black-capped in New Jersey, southern New York, Ohio, Indiana, southern Iowa and Kansas.
Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are look-alikes and in the area of range overlap they delight and confound birders. The best way to distinguish, usually, is by their calls. Not the chick-a-dee-dee but by another call each has, a whistle. That of the black-capped is a high clear two note fee-bee, that of the Carolina is also high whistled notes but there are four.
In the Rocky Mountains lives the mountain chickadee and along the West Coast is the chestnut-backed chickadee. In the southwest the Mexican chickadee ventures across the Rio Grande in southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona and in the forests of the far north is the boreal chickadee. Also in the far north, but only northern Alaska and northwest Canada, lives the gray-headed chickadee. More common in Siberia than North America this bird was once known as the Siberian tit.
Everywhere in North America, if there are trees, there’s a chickadee. That’s in winter as well as summer for these birds are not migrants. When food, insects, insect eggs, tiny spiders and seeds become hard to find they do wander which explains why boreal chickadees have been seen, rarely, in Indiana, far south of their normal range.
Now, when robins and other birds of summer to us have gone south, chickadees are more visible than ever. When the leaves are on the trees they’re hidden much of the time. Now they’re exposed, out in the open, flitting about the leafless branches of wood lots, parks and neighborhoods where there are trees and bird feeders.
When the sky is gray, and when the temperature is freezing, even below zero, look for chickadees. They’re little feathered bundles of energy flying from here to there, clinging to twigs, hanging upside down nearly as often as right side up, landing on the trunks of trees like nuthatches, picking at every bud, every seed head, every crack and crevice. Their cheery calling, dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee, can’t brighten the day or raise the temperature but it can raise your spirits.