Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of boreal chickadee © Nick Saunders

The northernmost counties in Wisconsin are the southern extent of the boreal chickadee's range.
© Nick Saunders

December 2010

Chick-a dee-dee-dee!

Meet the quiet, shy member of the peppy chickadee family.

Anita Carpenter

In the solitude of the Northwoods, a light snow falls gently and silently, slowly painting each fir branch and hemlock bough with fine brushstrokes of white. As the snow-laden gray clouds drift east, the morning sky clears and the late-rising sun casts its first light. The green and white scene is fresh, frosty and quiet, with snow diamonds sparkling in the brittle cold.

In this tranquil land, a flash of black and white lights upon the tip of a snow-dusted branch. A clear chick-a dee-dee-dee rings out through the forest and a black-capped chickadee greets a new day.

The black-capped, Parus atricapillus, is a year-round resident across Wisconsin from west to east and north to south. Its inquisitive, spritely antics, ceaseless energy and cheerful call brightens the day for anyone despondent over a long, cold winter. The playful bird often travels in groups, but it isnít the only chickadee species found here. Deep within the boreal spruce forest of our northernmost fringe in isolated bogs where black spruce, towering white spruce and balsam fir block out the chilling winds, lives the boreal chickadee, Parus hudsonicus.

Boreal chickadees are the same 5 ¼-inch size as their black-capped cousins. Both species are dressed in black bibs and gray wings, but the similarities end there. Black-capped have white flanks and black caps; the boreals have rufous – reddish to brown – flanks and muted brown caps.

They behave differently too. The black-caps are forever curious. They almost always respond to a chickadee call, even my poor rendition, and answer back. Theyíll fly in and flit overhead flying back and forth, and talking to me and to each other. They seem to enjoy the interactions. Boreals lack this curiosity. They may be enticed in but seldom share their more nasal chick-a dee call. They seem uninterested in investigating an intruder. More likely, they will quickly and silently disappear into the dense green background. Any look at a boreal chickadee that lasts longer than a glance is truly special.

The boreal chickadee normally ranges from northern Canada coniferous forests, where they are common, coming as far south as the northernmost edge of Wisconsin. In winter, they may associate with black-caps, so take the time to check out each small flock you see. Identifying a group of chickadees is quite easy; finding a boreal in a larger group of black-caps is more of a challenge. I searched for years to see my first boreal chickadee. Although the chase is over, Iím still thrilled each time I see one. After all, searching for boreal chickadees is an excuse, if you need one, to slow down and explore the beauty of a winter day in the Northwoods.

Anita Carpenter makes time for a close look at nature in all seasons. She writes from Oshkosh.