The bullies at the feeder will soon be singing a different tune!

This morning I watched a Black-capped Chickadee displace another chickadee at the feeder. Only after the dominant chickadee had gotten its seed and left could the other bird get its turn to eat. Such scenes of dominance and subordination, called the “pecking order,” play out a hundred times each day as the birds jockey for position at the feeders or vie for choice food plots.

Chickadees at the feeder

The dominant birds get to eat first while others wait their turn.

In the dominance hierarchy, each bird in the flock is ranked. The ranking is determined by degree of aggressiveness, so all the birds in the flock are subordinate to the most aggressive bird, while the lowest ranking member is subordinate to all the other members, with the rest falling somewhere in between. Typically, males dominate females and adults dominate juveniles. This ranking comes into play during feeding, mate selection, and claiming a territory, and actually reduces conflict because each bird knows its “place” within the flock. In winter, this means that precious energy is not wasted in fighting.

This chickadee pair is foraging together but the male will dominate at the feeder. Google images.

This chickadee pair is foraging together, but the male dominates her at the feeder. Google Images.

But sometime in early April, the scales will begin to tip in the female’s favor. As hormones kick in and mate selection begins, the rules of the winter flock will no longer apply. Males will pursue and try to impress the females. During courtship, chickadees and many other birds engage in what’s called mate feeding. The male will fly to the female with an insect or seed and the female, crouched with quivering wings like a baby bird, will accept the offering. This act is the equivalent of a “promise” by the male to feed and care for her while she is on the nest caring for their young.

Even the dusting of snow on the ground from last night does not alter the fact that the sun rises a few minutes earlier each day and sets a few minutes later. The lengthening days signal that spring is on its way and in just a few weeks mating season will begin. The male may rule the roost in the winter flock, but come spring, even the pushiest male will be singing a different tune! The female chickadee so rudely ousted by the male at the feeder need only be patient; her day will come.

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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.