Photo credit: Dan Lory

Imagine the avian universe had Big Time Wrestling, and you are a Song Sparrow trying to round out your team--the Pugnacious Passerines--for a tag-team match against the Raging Raptors. A piece of advice: Choose the Chickadee.

The Black-capped Chickadee is quick, acrobatic, fearless, curious, energetic, reliable. Ounce-for-ounce....no, I can't even say that, since a mature Black-capped Chickadee weighs in at under half an ounce.... gram for gram, you couldn't ask for a better partner in your corner than the little Chickadee.

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This tiny bird has a huge presence. Walk a mile through any stretch of forest, or city park, even on the coldest day of winter, and I would be surprised if you do not see or hear a chickadee or two. They are constantly on the move, and will often come right in close to investigate something new in their territory. If a new food source appears, they are probably the first to discover it, with other birds following in their wake. In city parks you will often see them taking seed or bread crumbs from outstretched palms. Even deep in the forest, where they would not be accustomed to regular human presence, I have had them land on the bill of my cap, just to check things out.

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When danger approaches, the Chickadee is often the first to react--and the noisiest. I have no way to verify this myself, but the books tell me that it will modify its call to signal not just the presence of a predator, but the type and intensity of the threat. A perched Great Horned Owl might elicit one or two "dee, dees;" the Chickadee can fly circles around that large and relatively slower-moving predator, so the threat level is relatively low. But the appearance of a smaller and more nimble predator, like a Screech Owl or a Shrike on the wing will bring on a cascade of non-stop, excited "dee-dee-dee-dee...." Other small birds, too, listen to the Chickadee's alarm calls and respond, even if they don't have such a call themselves.

On the cuteness scale, the Black-capped Chickadee tops the charts, making it a favorite guest at bird feeders. With its round, oversized head, striking white and black markings, small shiny eyes, and a tiny pointed beak, it bounces and pirouettes from branch to feeder, to bird-bath, maybe throwing in a backflip on the way, to catch an insect on the fly. They are joy in motion. 

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Which brings us back to that Big Time Wrestling match with the Raging Raptors. When that Barred Owl is getting the better of you, and you signal your Chickadee partner for help, watch the audience's mood change in an instant as this cute ball of energy enters the ring and steals the show. A spin and a feint to the left, with a sharp peck on the head for good measure. Then hanging upside down on the ropes, she'll whistle her two-note song to feign nonchalance, while the owl spins its head in a confused fluster. In a comical twist on the norm, that tiny Chickadee will have the spectators eating out of the palm of her hand.

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.