Love and anger

It is that time of year, isn’t it?  Every morning, the obviousness of what’s happening with all the birds strikes me.  Usually the awareness kicks in just before 5am.  For awhile, that was when the Northern Cardinal was singing in the large crepe myrtle outside my door.  More recently, the role of amorous crooner has been taken over by someone much smaller.  A little Carolina Chickadee has been making his rounds.  His fee-bee-fee-bay song rang out at 5:12 this morning (just like yesterday).  I can’t guarantee that he started at that point, only that I grudgingly became aware of him at that moment.  Since his song wasn’t actually addressed at me, though, I quite happily rolled over to sleep for a bit longer.

Anyway, this post is not really about the fee-bee-fee-bay song of the Chickadee.  That’s a very common song that’s being produced all over the place, now.  It is full of desire (‘Hey, let’s build a nest together’) and a bit of piss-off-y-ness (‘Hey!  This is where I’m setting up a home, so bug off’). And yes, I made up that word in the previous sentence.

This post is actually about another vocalization that this little chickadee performed yesterday.  I was sitting out on my little deck when he appeared in the myrtle and began a series of sounds that resembled someone who had swallowed too much boba at one time.  The technical (and appropriate) name for this category of vocalization is the gargle call. and it’s seen in other species of chickadees, too.  It went on for quite awhile, the bird moving rapidly between just a couple branches on the upper parts of the myrtle as he gave it.  It’s an interesting call, from a design perspective, in that it isn’t all that loud.  That means that it’s a call that is directed at someone who is close by.  I couldn’t see any other birds in the myrtle with the caller, but the bout of gargling ended when a bird that had been out of my sight flew off and was initially followed by the caller.

Other people have described the gargle in Black-capped Chickadees as aggressive call.  Spectrograms and descriptions of it can be found here:

Hailman, J.P.  1989.  The organization of major vocalizations in the Paridae.  Wilson Bulletin 101:  305-343.

The fun part about this call is that it shows the funny balance that the mating system brings to birds’ lives.  On the one hand, they’re singing all the time, trying to impress (and wooing people who enjoy listening to them).  On the other hand, they’re full of anger and aggression!  For such a tiny little bird to get so agitated is, well, adorable.  Ok, it sounds a bit condescending, but it’s ok…the chickadees don’t read this blog.  Generally, though, when people think of fierce animals, they think of lions and bears and maybe (if they’ve been dive-bombed) mockingbirds, but they don’t think about chickadees.  I can tell you, though, that little bird was fierce.  Breeding is definitely also about being exceedingly short-tempered in these birds, so don’t get in the way of their love.

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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