Boreal chickadees are predictable birds

Posted Oct. 12, 2012, at 2:49 p.m.
Boreal chickadees are spruce forest specialists and can be found wherever there is a good concentration of spruce trees. Their range barely dips across the border from Canada into the U.S., but are easy to find in Aroostook County.
Bob Duchesne
Boreal chickadees are spruce forest specialists and can be found wherever there is a good concentration of spruce trees. Their range barely dips across the border from Canada into the U.S., but are easy to find in Aroostook County.

Like most Americans, I mispronounce Newfoundland. After spending 15 days in the province this summer, I now know that it is not NOO-fun-lund. The Canadian pronunciation places the stress on the third syllable, emphasizes the “land,” and rhymes with understand.

I also learned that there is a boreal chickadee in every tree in Newfoundland. This is appealing to me because I have a soft spot for them. The black-capped chickadee may be the Maine state bird, but I’m very fond of their brown-capped cousins. They are a trifle more shy and their chick-a-dee call is more delicate — sort of a chick-a-wheeze-wheeze. They are also harder to find.

But not really. Boreal chickadees are spruce forest specialists, so they can be discovered wherever there is a good concentration of spruce. Northern Maine has a lot of such habitat. Boreal chickadees breed across the coniferous forests of Canada, where they are widespread and abundant. Their range barely dips across the border into the United States. They are easy to find in Aroostook County, and commonplace in the other northern counties.

Along the Maine coast, they get down as far as Stonington and Vinalhaven. Bangor is about the southern limit along I-95. I’d draw the line in central Maine at about Dover-Foxcroft and in western Maine at about Bethel. If you know of a place farther south of this blurry line, tell me. I put 40,000 miles on my car to research and create the Maine Birding Trail, but I could be wrong about a few things.

But not really.

Boreal chickadees make a lot of interesting noises, but unlike other chickadees, they do not have a whistled song. Black-capped chickadees have a two- or three-syllable “Hey, sweetie.” Carolina chickadees whistle a four-syllable song. Boreal chickadees whistle nothing, which makes it harder to hail a cab.

Black-capped and boreal chickadees do share one interesting trait: both can turn down their internal thermostats to withstand a Maine winter. They have also adapted to the cold climate by storing food, similar to the way we lay in a winter supply of potatoes and coffee brandy.

Here is what makes boreal chickadees truly unique. Both species glean insects, spiders and other invertebrates as a predominant part of their diets. Both augment their diets with small seeds. Both hide stashes of these foods in the crevices of tree bark for winter sustenance, and they have a pretty good memory for where to find these caches. But studies reveal that the only seeds stored by boreal chickadees are spruce seeds. So, naturally, you will never find boreal chickadees far from spruce.

So predictable is this habitat requirement that I can typically just look at a stand of spruce trees in Maine and know if boreal chickadees are present. They prefer to make their homes in low, dense spruce stands, but they’ll accept a more mature spruce forest, mixed with balsam fir. Boreal chickadees protect small breeding territories while nesting, but they are otherwise sociable and will join foraging flocks of black-capped chickadees.

I thoroughly enjoyed birding in the spruce forests of Newfoundland. Birds that are uncommon in Maine are silly easy there. Lincoln’s sparrows replace song sparrows as the dominant sparrow species. Fox sparrows sing in the campgrounds. Pine grosbeaks wander among the tents, feeding youngsters. Gray jay families prowl the picnic tables. I counted nine black-backed woodpeckers during my visit.

There are grand spectacles in Newfoundland, too. Gull Island in Witless Bay is home to 1.2 million seabirds, clouding the sky with puffins, murres and kittiwakes. The gannet colony at Cape St. Mary’s is a world wonder, featuring tens of thousands of seabirds right under your nose.

If you’re curious, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, I’ll be presenting a free slide show on Newfoundland at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden.

Still, birding Newfoundland reminds me of how spoiled I am by Maine. There are very few birds in the province that can’t also be found in the Pine Tree State, but there are a great many birds in Maine that can’t be found in Newfoundland. Altogether, I enjoyed about 120 species during my two weeks in the province. In Maine, I can top 120 in two days. My birdathon team did 136 in one day last May. Maine’s diversity of habitat and wealth of warblers puts to shame the aspirations of other regions in North America.

When it comes to birding, there’s no place like home.

Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 

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