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The Chickadee’s Serenade

by Bryan on January 22nd, 2011

It might happen any crystalline morning in late January, even when it’s -20F. You gird for the cold and head outside. Then you hear it. “Fee-bee!” Fee-bee!” Yep, Black-capped Chickadees are getting amorous.

The Fee-bee is the famous territorial call of a male (although females do occasionally make that call). It’s his attempt to advertise a territory and attract a mate.

But in January? When it’s this cold? Yep. It’s all about the light. You may have noticed there’s more of it. We’re approaching 10 hours of daylight. No matter how cold it is outside, the light makes chickadees hot. It stimulates the production of hormones that launch birds into song. They don’t necessarily see the days are longer. Scientists believe that light receptors in brain tissue trigger the release of hormones that shift the reproductive system into gear. The bird skull, somewhat translucent, allows sunlight to penetrate. The result is music.

There’s no romancing of the light here. It’s all about a ruthless land grab. Birds use song to take, define and defend territories. And if you’re a songbird looking to attract a mate, size does matter. If you’ve got turf, you’ve got stature and sex-appeal. Among chickadees, the studly, more aggressive males sing more often than the lower-ranking losers.

Make no mistake, however. Winter remains. Black-capped Chickadees aren’t yet breeding. But they’re thinking about it. These events happen on a bell curve. You’re now hearing the early-birds. So, for now, even in the cold, enjoy the Fee-bee serenade, and recognize that actual chickadee breeding, at least here in New England, is at least two months away. Sorry.

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From → Birds

  1. At least in Worcester birds very thin this year at the feeder. Conversing with Nona Estrin – thinking they are hanging out where there is water.

  2. spindriftmike permalink

    I used to think the chickadees were saying, “spring’s comin’!” Some folks say they are saying, “hey, sweetie!” I am so happy to hear this sound each January. Downhill from here…

  3. Thanks, Lene and Leda Beth. Lene, I’ll most likely have some photography workshops in Montpelier in February and/or April. Stay tuned! I’ll send out email notice.

  4. Interesting little post, Bryan. I always enjoy your photographs. Will you be offering any lectures at the library in Montpelier this year?


  5. Leda Beth Gray permalink

    One year I heard chickadees on the Blue Hill (ME) Christmas Bird Count! My friend Sheila put words to the mountain chickadee’s song, “here, fifi.” Sometimes the black capped do three notes and I think of calling a poodle. Even just the two notes resonates for me as “here, fee.”

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