The Complex Call of the Carolina Chickadee

By Freeberg, Todd M.; Lucas, Jeffrey R. et al. | American Scientist, September/October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Complex Call of the Carolina Chickadee


Freeberg, Todd M., Lucas, Jeffrey R., Krams, Indrikis, Somers-Willett, Susan B. A., American Scientist


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Complex Call of the Carolina Chickadee
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.