I was getting a few last shots of pika last week, before winter snows would soon bury the colony for the year. Suddenly a warbling call ending in a single whistle note drifted across the slope. Soon after I noticed the chickadee-dee-dee calls. I gave a couple of whistles and almost instantly the pygmy owl flew overhead being followed by half a dozen mountain chickadees. Long after the little owl had settled back into the timber, the little birds continued to sound off, pinpointing the owl’s position to me.
Over the years, I have often used my chickadee friends to warn me of owls. They also harass martens, weasels, foxes and occasionally bears. I’ve even noticed them chirping at grouse. Since mountain chickadees occur in most high elevation timber, they are characters one should pay attention to. If something’s going on in the forest, they know about it.
Mountain chickadees are hardy songbirds of the northern forests. Their white-eye stripe differentiates them from black-capped chickadees, which occur in lower elevations. They’re often spotted in small flocks usually mixed with red-breasted nuthatches. This arrangement of birds gets along so well because of their different feeding styles. Nuthatches store their food in the bark of the tree trunks, while chickadees tuck theirs under branches. Thus, no competition. When breeding season arrives, chickadees will pair up and chose a small tree cavity to raise their young. I’ve seen them in holes inches off the ground to over 40 feet high.
Years ago, my daughters and I were bushwhacking in the woods when I noticed a stellars jay harassing something. We investigated and found a baby mountain chickadee hunkered down in the grass. It couldn’t fly so must have fallen out of it’s nest prematurely. I picked it up and looked around for an adult. Nothing. Fifteen minutes later. Still nothing. I was about to ask my daughters if they could feed this little guy for the next week or so when an adult suddenly appeared with a mouthful of insects. I held up the chick.
“Is this yours?”
It appeared to be. So I set it upon a low limb. The adult quickly fed it and was off again. The jay was gone so we went on our way, hoping the baby chickadee would stay off the ground.
A few winters ago, we were lucky to have a partially albino chickadee frequent our bird feeder. I reported it to a bird expert friend of mine and he cautioned it wouldn’t last long. When something looks different, predators seem to center on it. I disagreed. Its white plumage would surely camouflage it from predators and thus protect it from attack. Well, the little fella was here for two winters than who knows what happened. All I can remember from his time here was whenever I saw him I couldn’t help but smile.
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