Magazine article American Scientist

The Complex Call of the Carolina Chickadee

Magazine article American Scientist

The Complex Call of the Carolina Chickadee

Article excerpt

What can the chick-a-dee call teach us about communication and language?

If you live in North America, Europe or Asia near a forest, suburban open woodlands or even an urban city park, chances are you have heard a member of the avian family Paridae - the chickadees, tits and titmice. Birds use calls to communicate with their flockmates, and most parids share a unique call system, the chick-a-dee call. The call has multiple notes that are arranged in diverse ways. The resulting variation is extraordinary: The chick-a-dee call is one of the most complex signaling systems documented in nonhuman animal species.

Much research on the chick-a-dee call has considered Carolina chickadees, Poecile carolinensis, a species common in the southeastern United States. We focus on this species here, but we also compare findings from other parids. We discuss how the production and reception of these calls may be shaped over individual development, and also how ecological and evolutionary processes may affect call use. Finally, we raise some key questions that must be addressed to unravel some of the complexities of this intriguing signaling system. Increased understanding of the processes and pressures affecting chick-a-dee calls might tell us something important about what drives signaling complexity in animals, and it may also help us understand the evolution of that most complex vocal system, human language.

Parids and Chick-a-dee Calls

Toward the end of summer, many songbirds in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere migrate south to overwinter in more favorable climates. But some species stay put. One of the most common groups of resident songbirds is the chickadees and titmice of North America and the tits of Europe and Asia. These small songbirds (they typically weigh less than 30 grams) live in a wide range of habitats, often in heterospecific flocks - mixedspecies groups that include other songbird and woodpecker species. Conspecific - composed of a single species - flocks of parids are often territorial and are reported to range in size from two (as in oak titmice, Baeolophus inornatus, which occur only as femalemale pairs) to dozens of individuals (as in great tits, Parus major, which form large assemblages with fluid membership). Parids that form flocks do so in the late summer months and often remain in them until the following spring, when female-male pairs establish breeding territories. Such a flock structure, with stable groups of unrelated individuals, is atypical for songbirds and, as we argue below, may be an evolutionary force affecting vocal complexity in these species.

Vocalizations in birds are often divided into two categories: songs and calls. Songs are typically given in the mating season and are directed toward mates or potential rivals. Calls are any other vocalization, and they fall into functional categories, such as food calls, contact calls, mobbing calls or alarm calls. In almost all songbirds, songs are complex and calls are simple. Not so with parids: Many species have relatively simple songs (for example, the/ee bee song of black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus, and the peter peter song of tufted titmice, Baeolophus bicolor), but at least one very complex call system - the chick-a-dee call. The name "chickadee" for the North American Poecile group of parids is the onomatopoeic rendition of this call. Interestingly, it is labeled the si-tä call in willow tits, Poecile montanus, which are native to parts of Europe and Asia. When spoken in Swedish, Norwegian or Latvian, si-tä sounds quite similar to the birds' call.

In winter months in many regions, the only bird sounds you may consistently hear are chick-a-dee calls. The source of those calls is likely to be a group of parids interacting with one another and with any number of other species of birds. Parids are commonly the nuclear species - the core members of mixed-species flocks; they are often joined for periods of time by satellite species such as nuthatches, kinglets, woodpeckers, goldcrests and treecreepers. …

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