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Observing the Mountain and Black-capped chickadees and how to tell them apart

Living the Wild Life

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Just like human cousins, bird cousins have a lot in common but also have many differences. Each fills a niche in the world. This week as I was watching my bird feeders, I noticed that the peanut-flavored suet cakes were taking a hit so I set up close to one. It did not take long before the culprits showed up. Three Mountain chickadees came in for an early morning breakfast instead of waiting for their preferred food — insect — to become active.

Their cousins, the Black-capped chickadees, had already been actively collecting Black oil sunflower seeds to eat and to hide for the future before the more numerous finches and sparrows took over the feeders. One of the more aggressive birds decided the Mountains were having a better breakfast, so it flew over to the suet, chasing off its less aggressive cousins.

Off to the large fir trees, they went looking for a hapless spider or beetle, but soon their chatter and the flakes of wasp nesting material floating to the lawn indicated that they had found a five-star restaurant. They had found a wasp nest containing larvae and they were cleaning it out. The lack of a cold-killing frost so far this autumn has allowed the wasps to stay active and the little birds were enjoying the feast.

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A mountain chickadee | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

I always enjoy the arrival of the Mountain chickadees as they migrate from the area mountains where they have been spending the summer. They can be recognized by their white racing stripes between their eye and the black cap on their head while their cousin is all black from just below their eye to the top of their head.

Mountain chickadees prefer to spend most of their time in conifer trees (trees with needles) while the B-capped prefer deciduous trees (trees with leaves). So, my large firs in my front yard attract the smaller, thinner Mountains while my hybrid poplars in the back yard are preferred by their chubby cousins.

Both species are very vocal with the B-capped being the noisiest. Their vocalizations are very complex and other songbirds use them as a guard dog. With their loud, “chickadee-dee-dee-dee” other birds have learned that the more “dees” at the end of the call, the greater the danger. The vocalization of the Mountains is a type of slurring of the “chickadee-dee” and the tone of their call warns of danger.

In the event of an attack from a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, I have seen all the other songbirds fly away while the chickadees will head for a thick lilac or a rose bush and harass the hawk. The hawk’s long wings will not allow it to maneuver in the tight quarters while the smaller agile bird teases it. I can just imagine the bird words that the small birds direct toward the larger killer.

If you watch and study chickadees, you will find out that they are full of tricks and use their warning calls to their advantage. If the other songbirds are dominating the feeders and they get hungry, a warning call will scatter the finches and sparrows while the chickadees get free rein on their preferred feeders for a few minutes.

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A black-capped chickadee. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

Each of the species of chickadees has a “dominance hierarchy,” a pecking order so to speak, among their flocks. B-capped chickadees get in large loose flocks and each flock has its identified leaders, some even led by females, while Mountain flocks are small with the males eating first before the female. During the winter, B-capped chickadees have “winter floaters,” individuals that will flit from flock to flock, having a different role in each flock. These can be the party animals of the chickadee kingdom. The Mountain chickadees are more shy than their cousins and will even find individual roosts at night instead of sleeping in groups.

If you become lonely or need to find a new friend and have a flock of Black-capped chickadees in your yard, hide all the feeders, sit in a chair with your hand full of sunflower seeds. You may be visited by a feathered friend that will first yell at you and then will soon talk softly to you before grabbing a bite and head for the trees.

Good luck with your feeding programs and enjoy the wildness that surrounds us.

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