Celebrating chickadees

Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo
THE BLACK-CAPPED chickadee is the most common variety seen in the Upper Peninsula.

Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo THE BLACK-CAPPED chickadee is the most common variety seen in the Upper Peninsula.

I challenge even the most stern among us not to smile when watching chickadees.

Seemingly everywhere, they are birds like something designed for an animated film or fairy tale, flitting around Snow White as she sings in the forest. Small of body, large of head, with a cheerful call that gives the chickadee its name, the cuteness factor is enhanced by its trusting, fearless nature. They are among the wild birds that can most easily be coaxed to feed from the hand.

Like squirrels and jays, chickadees are known to cache extra food during the winter and, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, can remember thousands of sites where they tucked away seeds.

One other talent, according to Cornell: “Every autumn black-capped chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment, even with their tiny brains.”

That distinctive call — “chickadee-dee-dee” — actually is part of a complex communication system chickadees have that allow them to recognize other individuals and flocks. Other birds have learned to listen as well, as the chickadee adds more “dees” to its call when warning about predators.

Chickadees seem most identified with snow and winter and northern climates, but in reality birds in this group can be found throughout the United States and into Mexico. Only the black-capped chickadee is common in the U.P., with the boreal chickadee, which has a distinctive cocoa-brown head, an occasional visitor from Canada.

While “chickadees” only occur in North America, they have close counterparts in Europe, Asia and Africa called tits. The New World chickadee species are even classified in the same genus poecile as several tits such as the willow tit of northern Europe and Asia and the marsh tit of Great Britain; both birds look so similar in form and coloring they likely would spark little to no reaction if they showed up in a Upper Peninsula backyard.

One species known as the grey-headed chickadee in Alaska and northwestern Canada is referred to as the Siberian tit in northern Asia and Scandinavia.

Yet despite the similarities, our varieties became chickadees, while in North America the Old World name got attached instead to the titmice, which look similar to the crested tits in Europe and central Asia. Only the tufted titmouse is seen this far north and east, and is not a regular bird in the region, though backyard bird feeders and a warming climate might allow for more expansion north, according to the Cornell Lab.

Parts of southeastern Wisconsin also have an established nesting population of the great tit, a Eurasian species originally thought to have been released in the Chicago area by a cage bird importer. These are much larger than our chickadees and have a yellow wash on breast and belly, along with a black streak from throat down the chest.

Otherwise, chickadee populations seem to be not just stable but increasing over the past 50 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

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The snowy owl invasion in the region continues, with several more reported in Iron County. Sadly, one was a dead owl found about a week ago underneath a utility pole in the Iron River area. It might have come in contact with an electrical transformer, said Monica Joseph, wildlife biologist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The snowy owls that end up in the county often are in poor shape to begin with, considering the distance they’ve come from the Canadian arctic where they were hatched, Joseph pointed out. If unable to find decent prey once here, this owl might simply have succumbed to starvation, she said.

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The deer hunt so far seems to be as predicted: Hunters have seen plenty of deer, but the vast majority are immature, perhaps two years old or younger.

“There are very few older-age bucks,” Joseph said.

Two mild winters aren’t enough time to make up for the losses from the severe three winters of 2012-13 through 2014-15. Still, the herd does seem to be on the rebound.

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