New State, New Chickadees

Joshua VanBrakle Tuesday, 03 July 2018

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I’m still getting used to being one state farther south. You wouldn’t think it would make much of a difference – moving from upstate New York to southern Pennsylvania – but it really does. Even with four nor’easters in March, we still had daffodils blooming the first week of April. Up in the Catskills, my other MyWoodlot buddies still had six inches of snow on the ground.

But the weirdest change so far? I have new chickadees.

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In New York, I had black-capped chickadees like this one. The Carolina chickadees I now see in southern Pennsylvania look almost identical, but you can tell them apart by listening to their songs.

Sure, they don’t look any different. When I told my wife we have new chickadees, she looked at me like I had my head on backwards. “What do you mean?” she asked. “They’re black-capped chickadees, same as in New York.”

Except they aren’t. The ones we had in New York were black-capped chickadees. The ones we have now are Carolina chickadees.

It’s not just regional name differences either. They’re different species. The black-capped chickadee is Poecile atricapillus, and the Carolina is Poecile carolinensis.

Even if they’re different species, it doesn’t change the fact that that they look almost identical to the naked eye. So how do I know I have new chickadees if they look the same? It’s all in the song.

Black-capped chickadees have two main songs. The first says their name, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” The second is a sweet, two-noted, “Phoe-be.” Carolinas also have two songs, but the “dee’s” in their “chickadee” song are much faster. And instead of a two-note Phoebe, they have a four-note, “Phoe-boo-be-bay.”

I’ve been listening to these new chickadees for months now, and they still catch me off guard every time they sing. With the similar appearance, I keep expecting them to make the old, familiar “Phoebe” song I became a birder listening to. I may have only moved one state away, but from a chickadee’s perspective, it’s a whole new world.

I wonder what other differences I’ll find exploring the new woods around me. More discoveries to come, I’m sure.

(PS: For the serious birders in the audience, black-capped and Carolina chickadees aren’t exact lookalikes. There are some subtle differences. If you want to try spotting them, check out this Audubon Society website that explains how to tell these birds apart.)

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