04.29.18: Isolated chickadee


A Black-capped Chickadee perches atop a stump in Sharon Woods Metro Park, Westerville, Ohio. 


Technical information

Jan. 15, 2016,
10:14 a.m.

40°6’51” N,
82°57'49" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Canon EF 600mm f/4L, Canon 1.4x teleconverter (840mm) 


1/1000th second


I don’t say this often about one of my wildlife photos, but if I could have planned and posed a photo of a Black-capped Chickadee it would have looked a lot like this one.

I usually find chickadees in the woods surrounded by a clutter of leaves and branches, making it difficult to get a photo of the fast-moving bird in isolation.

But I got lucky on this January morning in 2016.

I was photographing a commingled flock of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches in a wooded area of a local park when I saw this chickadee land on a broken small tree with nothing obstructing my view. I quickly turned the camera and grabbed a few shots before it flew off.

I immediately liked what I saw.

The defocused trees and light behind the chickadee form negative space around the bird and its perch. This helps isolate the chickadee to emphasize its small size. The semi-profile angle of view clearly shows the chickadee’s oversized round head, tiny body and markings. And the bird is in a typical chickadee pose, alert and always ready to fly.

It’s one of my favorite chickadee photos, a nice portrait of a bird that nature websites almost always refer to as “cute.” That’s a nice description of a bird with such a funny name.

I remember as a very young kid running through the neighborhood with a bunch of other kids all repeating the line, “my little chickadee.” I guess someone in the group had seen W.C. Fields on TV. Fields first used the catchphrase in a 1932 movie, “If I Had A Million,” and later starred in a 1940 movie called “My Little Chickadee.” He often repeated the phrase.

The phrase “my little chickadee” was so much fun to say that it was a natural for little kids like us to adopt it for our own.

I doubt if anyone in the group had a clue what a chickadee was or if anyone in the group had even seen one. We were probably about four or five years old.

I’ve now seen — and photographed — plenty of chickadees. As funny as the name is (it is thought to have come from its call, which sounds somewhat like “chick-a-dee”), the birds are even more fun to watch.

They are always active in their search for food, often hanging upside down from leaves or tree limbs to access seeds, berries or insects. They are also very curious, investigating anything they find in their home area. I’ve had chickadees land on my camera lens to see what I’m doing. Their curiosity means that chickadees are often the first birds to discover new feeders in the area.

I’m assuming this is a Black-capped Chickadee, the most common chickadee in Central Ohio, but I could be wrong. Central Ohio is in the overlap area for the southern border of the Black-capped Chickadee’s range and the northern edge of the range for the nearly identical Carolina Chickadee. Black-capped Chickadees have a bit more white wing-feather edging and shorter songs than the Carolina Chickadee, but it is very difficult to tell them apart.

When I looked up the differences between Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees on All About Birds (my favorite site for bird information) I discovered some interesting facts about chickadees: 

  • The Black-Capped Chickadee will hide seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.
  • Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.
  • Chickadee calls are complex and language-like, communicating information on identity and recognition of other flocks as well as predator alarms and contact calls. The more dee notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level.
  • Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.