During the cold, long nights of winter, some people just can’t wait for spring. This is true of some birds too.
As cold and snow attempt to monopolize the winter weather around New York Harbor, a little bird is starting to sing a song of spring. Actually it’s a mating call.
It’s a simple clear call, quite distinctive. A two or three note song that sounds like feeee-beeeee or phobeeee or even hey sweetie. Have you heard this curious song, usually early in the morning?
It’s a quick subtle song made by a small bird. A solo performance made before the loud springtime symphonies of countless birds.
Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are two of the most common and widespread chickadees that exist around New York Harbor. Both birds look very similar to each other. Both are fluffy and grayish birds with round heads and tiny bodies. Both have black tops and chins with white cheeks. Their plumage is neither colorful nor splashy.
To the untrained eye (and sometimes even to the trained eye), it’s difficult to tell them apart. The black caps tend to be brighter and more colorful with a slighter longer tail. The Carolina is duller grayish and its song is lower in pitch and slower.
Otherwise, it’s best to know where you are. Black caps are mostly common in the northern parts of the harbor while the Carolina frequents the southern shore, though territories can overlap occasionally.
Both chickadees are abundant along the edges of New York Harbor, from deciduous forests, to pine trees, to suburbs and urban wooded areas to back yard feeders. The birds are largely non-migratory and year-round residents. They are part of an amusing mosaic of lively winter birds that include titmice, kinglets, nuthatches, cardinals, and Downy woodpeckers.
The pocket-sized chickadees survive the cold northern winters, in part, by adapting to available food. They eat insects, seeds, and berries, more seeds and berries in the winter than in summer. Despite having birdbrains, chickadees are smart, adaptable birds that will hoard or stash food away in secret places only they know in order to have something to eat during brief severe weather periods when many other birds are hungry too.
As days get longer and daylight increases, the need to breed starts to get strong, especially in male chickadees, but occasionally in females too. A hormonal trigger goes off in their mind and the little birds start to sing.
Birds have specialized cells called photoreceptors in the base of their brains that record light and darkness, as well as ultraviolet or near-ultraviolet light during each day. As days lengthen, birds get spring fever.
Although mating pairs formed back in the fall and remain together as part of a winter flock, the longer days are stimulating the birds to sing to renew coupling bonds. Males begin singing in mid-January, and increases in frequency as the daylight progresses. The singing of these common winter-residents is one of the first vocal signs that spring is around the corner.
Next time you are outside on a cold winter morning, listen for the sweet serenade song of a fluffy cute chickadee nearby. It’s sure to warm your heart. Winter birds can do that.