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Always in Season: Spring brings another cycle in bird lives

This is a good time of year to appreciate black-capped chickadees. They're conspicuous this time of year, but pretty soon they'll be hard to find.

Not that the chickadees are going anywhere. They're just about to enter a new and important phase of their lives, bringing up the next generation.

Like many birds, chickadees are secretive about this business.

Chickadees are not shy about advertising themselves and courting their mates.

It's the nesting part that they keep hidden.

Chickadees are year 'round residents here, and it's likely they are among the most recognized of any bird species, with the possible exception of American robins.

Those small—very small—gray birds hanging around bird feeders are likely chickadees. You'll know for sure when you see the black cap and the black patch on the throat.

Hearing a chickadee call confirms the identification. The common name closely imitates the most common sound chickadees make.

There is room for confusion, though, because chickadees are hardly monotones. They have a wide repertoire of calls; at least 15 have been identified. Some of these so varied that chickadee researchers have suggested the chatter "may contain some of the characteristics of human language."

The call of special interest at this time of year is "Fee-bee." This is given almost exclusively by males and functions the way that many bird calls do. It announces the male's presence, advertising the extent of his territory, and attracts females.

The call is superficially like the spring call of the blue jay, which has a ringing two-note call, as well. The blue jay's advertisement call is louder and a bit harsher, not as musical nor pleasing to human ears as that of the chickadee.

For chickadees, nest construction starts soon after the first of April. This involves excavating a hole in soft wood. Existing holes are sometimes used, such as those created by small woodpeckers or possibly by damage to a tree.

The birds rarely move into houses provided by humans, however.

Chickadees do their own nest building for a very good reason. They want holes just large enough to admit them and so small that brown-headed cowbirds can't get in to dump eggs in the nest. Smaller holes also keep out predators, such as red squirrels and feral cats.

Females do this work. The job takes as little as two days or as much as two weeks, probably depending on the bird's own ambition and the density and toughness of the tree it's chosen for a nest site.

Eggs are laid almost as soon as the nest is finished.

The female does all of the incubating, which lasts 12 or 13 days.

Males have their own work to do. They bring food to females and young. They establish, advertise and protect territory.

During nesting, chickadees are generally silent and solitary.

Chickadees are social birds at other seasons. They form small flocks of 10 or a dozen birds, and each bird knows its place. These are usually family groups or groups of birds that were fledged near one another, within the same habitat, for example. Sometimes, these groups get together forming larger flocks. That's why 40 or more chickadees will show up at a feeder at the same time.

These flocks are made up of distinct social groups, though. Sometimes, "floaters" will move from one such group to another. Often these are low-ranking birds whose status may be higher in a new flock. Or they might be unattached males. This is rather similar to what happens in human societies, when a young man goes off to a nearby town looking for congenial company.

Chickadees form fairly stable pair bonds, though researchers have noted instances of divorce. Cheating on also occurs. In the world of avian research, these are called "extra-pair copulations."

Chickadees are woodland birds. They need at least a little cover. At my place west of Gilby, N.D., these birds are frequent, even daily visitors at the feeders. They are far from the most numerous of feeder birds, however. This year, that place was taken by American goldfinches.

As is often the case, I've consulted the series of monographs about North American birds published by the American Ornithologists' Union. The author in this case is Susan M. Smith, a Winnipeg native who also wrote a book about the species published by Cornell University in 1991.