Eagles are majestic and falcons, fierce. Hummingbirds are magical; Owls are haunting and maybe, a little haunted.
Chickadees — those little parcels of pluck — are cute. Indelibly so.
“They’re great birds,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society.
“Their size makes them even more cute,” said Ken Elkins, director of education at the Bent of the River nature sanctuary in Southbury, owned by Audubon Connecticut.
“Who doesn’t like them?” said Cathy Hagadorn, executive director of Sherman’s Deer Pond Farm nature preserve, owned by the Connecticut Audubon Society. “They’re like the beginning of a Disney movie.”
They’re also smart, resilient, adaptable, sociable, and fearless — the leaders and protectors of the backyard flock.
“They send out their warning call to all the birds,” said Margaret Robbins, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Brookfield. “The squirrels listen as well.”
And now that bird feeders — stored away lest summering black bears shamble them — are back up, the chickadees are also in plainest view, whirring around, calorie-loading sunflower seed and boldly watching your every move.
“They’re insatiably curious,” said Hagadorn.
Robbins said she had one chickadee that would follow her around her yard, scolding until she filled her backyard peanut feeder.
“It was like ‘Where have you been?’” Robbins said.
And maybe because we feed them so willingly, they’re doing well. Comins of Connecticut Audubon said that in both Connecticut and nationally, chickadee numbers are either holding their own or rising.
This may also be due to chickadee adaptability, he said. They manage well in any habitat.
“You can be in the most remote spot in New England and you can see chickadees,” he said. “And you can see them at feeders in Bridgeport and Hartford.”
Chickadees — and their almost-as-cute cousins, the titmice — are members of the Paridae family of birds.
The birds we adore in New England are black-capped chickadees. But throughout North America, there are five other members of the Chickadee clan, ranging from the Mexican chickadee to the south to the boreal chickadee of the far north.
They are social, gregarious birds. They’re one of the few that get their name from their call — “Chick-a-dee – Chick-a-dee-dee” which they sound as a warning.
“They’re onomatopoetic birds,” Hagadorn of Deer Pond Farm in Sherman said.
During the spring and summer, they’re insect eaters. When fall and winter come, they switch over to seeds and berries.
Because they are so small, they shiver away a lot of calories on winter nights. So they’ve evolved strategies to cope with cold.
One is to go into a sort of a regulated torpor with all their body systems slowing down at night, then reviving as the sun rises.
The other is to eat a lot. Chickadees cache food during the day, storing seeds under loose tree bark for pick-up later on. To remember where all those depots are, chickadees also increase the size of their brains in winter.
“Then, as the winter progresses, their bodies absorb some of that extra brain as food,” Hagadorn said.
Because they are so alert and curious, chickadees and titmice are often the first birds to investigate backyard feeders. Then, Comins said, others — juncos, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and house finches — follow.
There may be a sort of a large, floating flock of chickadees in a broader area, he said, with smaller flocks passing information around, one to another.
Social birds that they are, they tolerate mixed flocks. Comins said birders should always scan a flock of chickadees in winter, simply because something rare might be mixed in with it.
But if a predator perches nearby, dispassion goes out the window. Chickadees will mob it, shouting out alarms and swooping at it until it flies away.
“If I see hawk or owl in daytime, it’s not because of dumb luck,” Elkins, of Bent of the River in Southbury, said. “It’s because I’m listening to the chickadees.”
The black-capped chickadees are the New England bird. But just to the south is their almost identical cousins, the Carolina chickadee — slightly smaller, with slightly less contrast to its plumage and different songs and calls.
Comins said right now the chickadee border line lies around Trenton, New Jersey. To the north, black-capped, to the south their Carolinas kin.
But because of climate change, that line is moving.
“In 50 years, the Carolina chickadee may be the dominant bird here and the black-capped chickadee a winter visitor,” Comins said.