Naturalist Brian Keating experienced something rare earlier this month — the sighting of three species of chickadees in one day.
"I call that a triple crown. And actually a friend of mine calls it the triple chick," Keating told The Homestretch. "It's just one chickadee shy of the Alberta grand slam.… But I think any day with three species of chickadees is a good day."
Keating spotted the first two species while out for the day cross-country skiing in Kananaskis, and spotted the third one after getting back to Calgary.
"My wife and I went up along the Smith-Dorrien Highway up to the Great Divide [Trail]. And we did a good long day cross-country ski. And along that ski route, we came across two species of chickadees, the boreal and the mountain chickadee. And when we got home, we saw the black-capped chickadee."
The fourth species, the one they did not spot on this epic outing, is the rare, chestnut-backed chickadee. There have been only 17 recorded sightings so far in Alberta, Keating said.
"The last one was Myrna Pearman [who] actually photographed all four species of chickadees in Water Valley at a feeder there, and that was in 2018. Now, that's what I call a grand chickadee slam."
The casual observer may not know the differences between the species, but Keating said they are easily spotted once you know what to look for.
"Next to the robin, I think the chickadee is probably the most recognized bird in our backyard," Keating said. "But for chickadee connoisseurs, there's wonderful differences between the species. Last week, I photographed all three species. The three photos just make a great comparison of those three species.
The most common and abundant species, the black-capped chickadee, is the one found all across the province, Keating said. They're often spotted at backyard bird feeders. The less-common species is the boreal chickadee, and that's a brownish version of the black-capped chickadee.
"They prefer the coniferous-dominated forests, like where we were skiing in Kananaskis. And then the mountain chickadee is well named, because its range is restricted to the mountains and the foothills, and it resembles the black-capped chickadee, too, but it's got a very distinctive white eyebrow."
There are 65 species of chickadee, and the noisy, social birds are found all over Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
"Some of their calls are quiet. In fact, when we were skiing last week, we could hear these very high-pitched calls, almost too high for us to really make out. And those are their feeding calls that keep the group together."
Keating said chickadees are generally known for their common call that sounds like "chick-a-dee-dee" — it's a warning call, and the number of "dees" at the end signifies the level of danger.
Chickadees can survive by foraging for what is available at a given time of year.
"They're all generalists, insectivores … they consume all kinds of small insects, various other species, invertebrates, especially caterpillars," Keating said.
"And at this time of the year … it's mostly seeds and nuts. But the one characteristic method of foraging of the whole family is how they inspect a branch or twig from all angles."
Keating said they can be in competition with each other for some of the best foods and resources, song perches and roost sites, but different species like to nest differently, and also approach foraging differently.
Chickadees are cavity nesting birds, they make their home in some kind of tree hole or nesting box. But they don't all look for the same type of site.
"Black-backed chickadees… they excavate a new hole every year. They sometimes use old holes, but not usually, whereas the mountain chickadee always uses pre-existing nesting holes and they'll reuse it year after year because mountain chickadees use those pre-made holes, which are often built by yellowbelly sapsuckers. The trees they use by default are usually much larger than what the black-capped chickadees are able to use."
And when it comes to foraging, the difference in their tree preferences means black-capped and mountain chickadees can live harmoniously in the same habitat.
"Black-capped chickadees tended to forge lower in the canopy in smaller trees compared to the mountain chickadee. So even though the territories of the two species essentially overlapped, they remained ecologically separated by their feeding behaviours. And that basically reduces or eliminates the food competition," Keating said, adding that the separation isn't about territory or bullying.
"They saw no aggression between the chickadees. So chickadees are polite to each other as they are to us," Keating said.
Keating said the tree foraging by birds has been shown to be an integral part of the ecosystem.
"They can actually spur the growth of pine trees by as much as a third. They remove so many beetles, so many caterpillars and ants and aphids that the increased vigour of the tree is actually measurable," he said.
"And it just goes to demonstrate that these happy little chickadees whose song always brings a smile to your and my face in the dead of winter — they're all part of how nature is interconnected."
Listen to the full interview with Brian Keating on The Homestretch here:
With files from The Homestretch