Spring at last! Our early migrant birds are returning in ever-greater numbers, but many of the year-round residents have already been preparing for nesting season for weeks, including our beloved Massachusetts state bird, the Black-capped Chickadee.
Year-round, chickadees make their namesake call, chickadee-dee-dee, using an increasing number of dees the more alarmed or threatened they feel—an early-warning alarm that even other species of birds will respond to. But as early as mid-January, males begin singing their high, sweet fee-bee song to attract mates and prepare for nesting season.
It’s easy to confuse the chickadee’s sweet whistle with the more emphatic, raspy fee-BEE sung by Eastern Phoebes, which we should also start hearing around this time of year, but play them side-by-side a few times and you’ll quickly learn to recognize the difference:
Plenty of small migratory songbirds will associate with flocks of chickadees during spring and fall migration, so if you hear a flock of chickadees in your neighborhood, grab your binoculars—there may be an interesting migrant nearby, as well.
Enjoy these five photos of Black-capped Chickadees from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, and listen for these sweet songbirds on your next nature walk.
Some resident birds start singing their spring songs in late February and early March like clockwork, no matter what the weather is doing.
Even when winter keeps its grip on Massachusetts with snow and freezing temperatures, these birds mark the lengthening days with songs to attract mates, define their territories, and prepare for breeding season.
Early songsters respond to the amount of time between sunrise and sunset—called the photoperiod—and shift their behavior towards spring patterns accordingly.
Here are some of the earliest sounds that prove spring is just around the corner.
Black-capped Chickadees whistle a thin, pleasant “fee-bee!”:
Northern Cardinals give high, piping warbles from exposed perches:
Mourning Doves make low, resonant coos throughout the day:
A week or two after these birds start sounding off, the earliest short-distance migrants arrive from the southeast part of North America: Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds.
Blackbirds’ jangling, metallic song is most often heard in marshes and wetlands:
Grackles give a chorus of creaks and harsh “chack!” notes in large, transient flocks:
The arrival of spring accelerates after the first few migrants arrive, with skunk cabbage poking through the soil in wetlands and more birds like Ruby-crowned Kinglets to Yellow-rumped Warblers showing up.
All of these species are out and singing by the second week of March. Which ones have you been hearing so far this year?