Singing a new song

Are our chickadees learning?

Signs of spring are finally upon us. The last three mornings, around 6 o’clock, we’ve wakened to hear a male chickadee courtship song consisting of three notes: a descending whole step followed by a half step (B-flat to A-flat to G). So unusual is this song that we assume it’s the same individual.

When we first heard his song about a week ago, he was singing just the two-note half step (A-flat to G). In our experience, chickadees sing two-note whole steps, not half steps, with a starting note anywhere between B and G. Over the next few days this bird added the initial B-flat, creating the three-note song.

We wonder how the variations in song develop in the individual. Since the three-note with half-step song seems to be rare, it is unlikely that he learned it from his father or a fellow chickadee.

It is possible that he improvised the new song and prefers it over the traditional song. We wonder whether the three-note song affects his attractiveness to hens. We do not know whether the songster is a black-capped or mountain chickadee.

N. Thomas and R. Davis



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