LEADERS OF THE PACK
“Did you know birds have language?” I was asked this question by a friend who was relatively experienced in the outdoors—a successful big-game hunter and hiker of fourteeners. I was surprised. Of course bird calls mean something, but she had been to some recent outdoor training and the idea that birds communicated was a revelation.
Most bird calls are territorial—essentially, the bird is telling other males to “bug-off” while providing a “come-on” to stray females. Learning calls is a great way to find and identify birds. In the spring and early summer that’s the best way to find birds. You can walk along and, for some common birds, hear the next one on territory and the next and the next as you walk along a trail.
But what about in the fall when birds aren’t on territory? How do you find migrant warblers if they aren’t singing their characteristic, territorial songs? One of the best ways is to listen for chickadees. In a patch of aspen woods that I know well, I hear chickadee territorial calls in the spring and then I don’t hear the birds at all. They become furtive while nesting. Once it is autumn, however, the woods are either silent, or there is the incessant nasal “de-de-de” emitted by a group of black-capped chickadees.
My question was “how do you find migrant warblers?" What does that have to do with chickadees? Simple, chickadees are active and noisy. Usually, their calls serve the purpose of telling the rest of the group “I’m here.” “Now, I’m here.” “Now, here.”But, if a hawk is spotted or a noisy human, the calls become strident. The chickadee alarm call is well-known to most people, and it certainly is to other birds. So, it makes sense. If you are a migrant warbler having just flown in from Canada or Montana, attach yourself to a group of local chickadees. They know where to feed. They make plenty of noise so you can stay with the group in unfamiliar terrain, and they collectively sound the alarm if there’s something amiss.
Back to the walk in the woods…it is quiet…nothing singing, nothing moving. Then you hear some chickadees. Check it out. Here they come—often 4 to 6 or more, just talking away. The trick is not be entertained too much by the chickadees hanging upside down and flitting quickly from bush to bush. Instead, look for the other birds in the flock. They are there. On a recent walk, I saw orange-crowned, yellow-rumped and yellow warblers with a flock of chickadees.
Another flock had only a large group of Wilson’s warblers—the little guys with the black cap that breed in Colorado’s high mountains and further north into Canada.
Any time of year it is worth checking out a group of chickadees. Several of our year-around residents also travel in chickadee flocks—especially downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches. This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, send an email to email@example.com and “like” us on Facebook!]