Friday, January 1, 2016

First Bird of the Year 2016: Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Photo from Wiki Commons
A birder in Australia once started her new year with a sighting of a wedge-tailed eagle eating a straw-necked ibis.

If I were her, I'd definitely choose the eagle as my official first sighting, and not only because the general rules of birding mandate that the birds you count on your life list must be alive, but because the First Bird of the Year is supposed to augur the sort of year you're going to have.

In that regard, this sighting of a straw-necked ibis would not seem to bode well.

Living in a suburban neighborhood as I do, my First Bird is never going to be as dramatic a species as a wedge-tailed eagle. I figured that on this frosty January 1 it would be one of the busy birds attacking our feeders, and today that bird was the chestnut-backed chickadee--a pert little bird whose cheerful, busy ways make it the very incarnation of all those New Year's resolutions about making better use of one's time and getting things done.

Chestnut-backed chickadee at our feeder, winter 2013
"Our" chestnut-backed chickadees spend these chilly days diving down from the top of the plum tree to the feeder, plucking out sunflower seeds, and then swooping away to cache them in crevices and under bits of bark. This behavior makes them highly appropriate creatures to set the tone for our upcoming year, in which we must practice austerity in anticipation of paying for the Resident Teen's post-high-school education and wishing that, like the chickadee, we'd socked away a lot more in previous years...

Chestnut-backed chickadees are West Coast birds that favor old, wet forests with lots of Sitka spruce and other conifers, but like their relatives the black-capped chickadees they're also at home in rural and suburban gardens.

Their range overlaps with that of the widespread black-capped, but where they occur together, they coexist nicely because they occupy different niches: chestnut-backed chickadees typically scour the upper branches of conifers for insects, and the black-capped chickadees prefer to glean the lower branches and favor oaks over conifers.

The two species don't even bicker at the feeder--they're happy to take turns depleting the seed supply, and both dart in and out without fussing about the finches, towhees, and sparrows also thronging the banquet.

Ornithologists named the bird for its rich, chestnut feathers, but chickadees named themselves with their distinctive "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call. The number of "dees" varies--a truly alarmed chickadee may tack on quite a few to its call when it wants other birds to join in mobbing a perched raptor or a land-based predator such as a cat. One scientist counted 23 extra "dees" in a chickadee's call when it detected a perched pygmy-owl.

Alas, poor chestnut-backed chickadee! In many books, its vocal abilities are frequently compared, somewhat unfavorably, to the  black-capped's.

Black-capped chickadee (left) and chestnut-backed chickadee (right) at our feeder

A 1968 Seattle Audubon Society guidebook says this species produces "nasal notes," a "harsh check check chickadee" and a "more nasal pip-durr-durr." (Imagine if they'd called this species a pipdurrdurr; how fun would that be?)

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America says the chestnut-backed's call is "a hoarse, high-pitched, rapid sik-zee-zee or just zee-zee." 

In The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Western Birds, it's said to utter "a squeaky chick-a-dee, somewhat shriller and faster than that of other chickadees" and often "simply utters a thin tsee-deee and thin lisping notes."

And Sibley adds that its typical call consists of "high buzzy notes with lower nasal husky notes tsidi-tsidi-tsidi-cheer-cheer or weaker tsity ti jee jee."

Thin, nasal, squeaky, hoarse, weak, high-pitched, shrill...how long could you listen to a chestnut-backed chickadee chattering away with you in a coffee shop? (That's if you could put up with it hanging upside down half the time.)

Chestnut-backed chickadee at our feeder
But some writers were onto this nefarious Black-Capped Chickadees Set the Standard thing long ago. Ornithologist William Dawson, in his 1923 work Birds of California, pointed out that many authors wrote descriptions of the chestnut-backed chickadee's behavior that were entirely extrapolated from that of the black-capped.

He acknowledged that the chestnut-backed was "neither quite so lively nor so noisy as his giddy eastern cousin" but also that it was "one of the daintiest and most alluring of the dwellers in the redwoods," calling them "busy little midgets" and admiring "what a merry war they wage on beetle and nit." To his ears, the little birds trilled sweetee and a beakful of a phrase he rendered as a rather Croatian-looking kechesawick. He also noted that they uttered chickadee as kissadee, "the latter given so caressingly that you want to pinch the little darling."

John James Audubon didn't have much to say about the chestnut-backed chickadee, basing his account of the chickadee genus primarily on the black-capped, though he did paint a lively and charming pair of the birds. He called this species the chestnut-backed titmouse.

Titmouse is basically the Old World word for a chickadee, springing from an ancient Anglo-Saxon word tit (meaning something very small--stop that giggling, now) and another equally old word, mase (which also meant "tiny" or even "small bird, depending on the source).

The bird-word connection extends even into punctuation in an essay by one of the writers who toiled to produce the massive tome Birds of America, published in 1936 by the University Society with lots of assistance from Audubon Society and Cornell experts. In that work, chestnut-backed chickadees are depicted as "feathered interrogation points...interviewing and questioning every passer-by."

Speaking of interrogation, I think our chickadees are demanding more sunflower seeds, if the gimlet stares they're lasering through my office window are any indication....