Complex calls of the chickadees and titmice

Many birds fly south in winter to escape the cold and scarcity of food, but Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, members of the family Paridae, are year-round residents. In Virginia, after the breeding season ends, chickadees and titmice form loose winter foraging flocks with other species that often include White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Brown Creepers. The “follower” species travel with the chickadees and titmice because these two “leader” species are excellent food-finders and alert sentinels that help to create a safer feeding environment for the flock.

Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees often show up at the feeder together

Downy Woodpeckers (left) and other species that forage with Black-capped Chickadees (right) rely on the chickadee’s ability to find food and spot predators.

These parids share a unique call system to communicate with flockmates — a nasal, mechanical chick-a-dee call. According to an article in American Scientist (Sept-Oct 2012), the chick-a-dee call is one of the most complex signaling systems documented in non-human animal species. The calls are used to communicate information on identity and recognition of other flocks, the finding of food, contact with flock members, and predator alarms. Amazingly, subtle variations of the call even communicate information about the size and risk of potential predators. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the more “dee” notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level. The call also serves as a rallying call to summon others to mob and harass the predator.

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Tufted titmice (left) use a variation of the chickadee call, a scratchy “tsee-day-day-day”.

The parids are intelligent, adaptive, resourceful, and curious. They are often the first birds at the feeder in the morning and are entertaining to watch as they interact with other birds. Especially in the drab days of winter, the cheery chickadee-dee-dee call is music to our ears.

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6 thoughts on “Complex calls of the chickadees and titmice

  1. Dan and I have recently been having a “picnic” lunch on our porch and with my bird book in hand I have called black capped chickadees, a pair of cardinals, and some tufted titmouse’s to our feeders! I have been so thrilled to hear them “answering” the calls I make with my book. They are often off in the woods and as I call them they make their calls and gradually come closer and closer to our feeders! I love to watch the pair of cardinals as they feed – she waits in a close by branch as he feeds and then (and only then) it’s her turn to feed. Dan often makes the comment that nature knows how it should be!
    Much love, Margie

    • Actually, most males of the species dominate the female at the feeder in winter. That’s because the male is the strongest and is the “protector.” When it comes time for breeding, though, he’ll change his tune – many males actually feed the females as part of the courtship process. Glad you’re taking time to watch the bird activity – the more you watch, the more you notice!

  2. This is fascinating – I have the same set of foragers minus the creepers. I notices the titmice and chickies calls sounded very similar. Neat that it’s actually in concert. When I am filling the feeders or walking in the woods I hear either species make that “dee” or “tay” syllable two to three times while they watch me – had no idea it was a threat message. I thought they were telling me to hurry and fill the feeders 🙂

  3. It’s not always a predator alert; different, but slight variations of the call mean different things. Sometimes it’s just our best guess what they’re saying!

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