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Flight Lines: Black-capped chickadee everyone's favorite

Black-capped chickadees are considered non-migratory and can be encountered in the woods in any season. Keith Corliss / Forum Communications Co.

Just for fun, let's say we've been asked to manufacture a bird species using a list of certain characteristics, as if something like this were possible. Our orders say the animal must be small and gentle, it must be fairly tame, it must possess a wide vocal repertoire, it must be easy on the eyes using only shades of blacks and whites, it must get along well with others, it must appear readily at our feeders, it must be in the business of warning others of danger, it must range over a large area, and it must be easily recognizable. While we're at it, let's make it non-migratory so we can enjoy its presence year round.

After entering all those traits into our bird synthesizer it begins to hum and churn and rumble. Minutes later we reach into the output hopper and retrieve our finished product. It should come as little surprise our make-believe critter looks an awful lot like a rather common and very popular real bird, a black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).

Endowed with endearing qualities which make it a strong contender for favorite North American bird, black-capped chickadees populate a wide swath of the continent from east to west. Because it readily comes to feeders, it might also be the most recognized songbird in the country.

Surrounding a white cheek is the bird's bold black cap as its name suggests - and a black bib. It's mostly white underneath but with tan (or "buffy" in bird vernacular) sides. The bird's wings, tail, and back are gray. The sexes are indistinguishable.

There are four other chickadee species found on the continent north of Mexico but here in North Dakota only the black-capped is expected so there really should be no confusion. (There are a tiny handful of boreal chickadee records for the state, however, so if anyone sees a chickadee with a dingy brown back I'd sure love to hear about it).

The word 'chickadee' is derived from its call, a somewhat raspy "chickadee-dee-dee," a commonly heard sound throughout the woods and parks, especially in winter. This is a bird, though, with a highly complex language and is capable of uttering a wide range of vocalizations. Its classic song is a two-tone, clear, whistled "fee-bee," with the second note lower by a musical third.

Most times, black-capped chickadees are a study in hyperactivity, something easily witnessed at feeders. With seemingly boundless energy the birds flit about spending little time at rest. They have a habit of snatching a sunflower seed then darting to a nearby branch to eat it. Never have I seen one eat at a feeder. Why the birds do this is mysterious and I can only guess it is a survival mechanism of some sort.

Little of significance occurs in the woods without these vocal and social birds knowing about it. Nearly every time a person strolls into trees, black-capped chickadees are usually not far away and taking notice. And it's not just people catching their attention. Any creature considered a threat - owls, raccoons, house cats, etc. - will typically bring a chorus of bold yet scolding little chickadees. This mobbing behavior is common but not all that well understood. It certainly benefits the would-be victims of predators in the least.

It's one of the cavity-nesting species. That means it builds its nest in a tree hole; one either abandoned or excavated by the chickadees themselves. Most people consider dead or dying trees to be a nuisance and regularly remove them from property. I would only urge readers to consider the huge array of organisms entirely dependent upon decaying wood and think about leaving some dead plant material if possible.

Birds are not often described in warm cuddly terms yet this one is an exception. Even the renowned Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology says the black-capped chickadee is, "a bird almost universally considered "cute."" Indeed, try as we might to conceive of the perfect harmless, attractive, endearing, and useful yet fictitious bird in an exercise, it appears we need look no farther than nature itself and the black-capped chickadee.