Amid solitude and snow, the sound of “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” gives voice to the winter wind. That one-of-a-kind call is so common and recognizable it gives the chickadee its unusual name. This familiar bird may be tiny but it has a very large year round presence. It is equally apt to visit your backyard bird feeder, or speak to you during a solitary woodland hike in January.
On such a hike one cold day, I heard some chickadees calling and held up my finger, offering a perch. One of them actually flew over and landed. I could feel its hot little clawed toes vibrating as it clasped my finger. After checking me out, it burst away and left me amazed. One of the many endearing attributes of chickadees is their curiosity.
This tiny gray bird with the large black cap is an intermittent companion along the trail. Hike at Forest Park and watch closely… you are practically guaranteed to see chickadees going about their business, foraging for dormant insects, spiders, and even some seeds and berries. They need to take in a lot of calories to maintain their all important temperature, in fact, they need nearly 20 times more food in winter than in summer. A chickadee can gain as much as 10 percent of their body weight on a winter day and lose it overnight. This may explain why they can appear so hungry at the feeder in the morning.
Chickadees are remarkably well adapted to winter, which is how they can be year round residents. A couple adaptations are particularly interesting. Weighing in at only half an ounce, during the most blustery blizzard conditions they maintain a daytime body temperature of 107 degrees F., thanks to a combination of high metabolism and effective down insulation. But in order survive those long cold winter nights, they have a trick up their sleeve. Roosting in cavities, their body temperature can drop about 20 degrees, allowing them a significant savings in energy expenditure.
These adaptations notwithstanding, when the temperature dips to sub zero, there will be a percentage of the chickadee population that will succumb to the cold. Maintaining a well stocked bird feeder with sunflower seed and suet, is one way to insure a majority of chickadees will survive.
Besides the chickadee, there are other examples of birds that don’t just tweet or twitter, but do such unique vocalizations, their names mimic their sound. This is known as onomatopoeia, which is one of those words that shows up only rarely in conversation, but what it describes is surprisingly common. It refers to any word that sounds like what it is describing, such as ‘buzz’ or ‘splash.‘ These words draw you in, help you relate, and create emphasis. Other birds whose names mimic their sounds include “Bob White,” “whippoorwill,” and the “peewee.”
Forest Park in Peoria Heights used to be a girl scout camp named “Camp Whippoorwill.” Rare today, imagine when the urgent sounding and repetitious “whip-poor-will” reverberated throughout those hills and valleys, filling spring and summer evenings of Forest Park Nature Center. The loud mid-day call of the Eastern wood peewee, “pee-o-wee,” occasionally echos through these same woods, but only in spring and summer.
The “Chuck-Will’s-Widow,” like his relative the whippoorwill, repeatedly calls out his name, and is also so distinctive, there can be no doubt of this bird’s identity. These mostly southern birds can actually be found in Central Illinois in spring and summer.
They nest as far north as Sand Ridge, west of Manito. Visit Sand Ridge and, according to peoriaaudubon.org “From the headquarters, drive west on Sand Ridge Road and stop at the Pine Campground and Horseman’s Park. Look for crossbills in winter and listen for Whip-Poor-Wills and Chucks-Wills-Widows in summer.” You will hear them just after a spring/ summer sunset. Meanwhile, January is one of our favorite times to set out for Sand Ridge to view some winter birds, such as horned larks in open fields, and nuthatches and crossbills among the pines.
For now, the endearing chickadee is the bird that can be counted upon to cheerfully repeat his name to you, even on the coldest winter day, whether in Peoria, or on the trails in Forest Park.