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On the Wing: The Great Chickadee Search

Wed, 01/25/2023 - 17:00
In the winter, when you hear the “dee-dee-dee” call of the chickadee it often means you’re about to encounter a mixed flock of birds that could include titmice, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers.
Jay Rand

Looking out your window and seeing a black-capped chickadee is easy. It’s a common feeder bird, personable and confiding. Small, black cap and chin, white cheeks, gray wings, long tail.

At the Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac, they mob visitors, accepting seed from open palms, perhaps leading George Held, a Sag Harbor poet, to ask, “Black-capped mendicant, why do you put your life in my hand — just to snatch an easy snack?”

“As a rule the chickadees are the tamest of all; there seems to be no limit to the confidence which these little fellows will have in you if you give them a little encouragement. At my home they know us so well that if they don’t see what they want they practically ask us for it,” Ernest Harold Baynes wrote in his 1915 book, “Wild Bird Guests.”

But I wanted a walk and a challenge, so I went to the Mulvihill Preserve, on the other side of Noyac, to hunt for wild chickadees. Hard? No. A unique reason to be in the woods? Yes. A winter activity for a winter bird.

Chickadees are with us year round, but we tend to notice them more in the winter. In the spring, particularly May and June, they disappear from the “feeder-scape.” They can’t feed seeds to their nestlings. They’re out searching for small caterpillars, moths, and moth eggs.

I walk into the preserve and up a rise until I’m out of sight of the empty parking area, a dirt patch. A lawn chair lies on its side in standing water. A squirrel watches from a tree. Distant gunshots.

I take a breath. For a few minutes, I just stand there and listen, a habit that makes me thrilling company.

Black-capped chickadees usually announce their presence well before you see them, in a simple yet effective language, which also gives them their name. According to, “Chickadees make their ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ call using increasing numbers of ‘dee’ notes when they are alarmed.”

If you hear three “dees,” no big deal. If they string together more than five, something, perhaps you, or maybe some unseen predator, is freaking them out. I once saw a chickadee frozen to our birdfeeder and thought something was wrong, until I noticed a Cooper’s hawk in a nearby tree.

I pass a large stand of pine trees where I always hope to see a great-horned owl (but never do), and then step into the mixed oak and beech forest.

In the winter, chickadees lead little gangs of nuthatches, titmice, kinglets, and downy woodpeckers through the woods. In fact, hearing their call is exciting because you never know which birds will be with them.

According to, “Small songbirds migrating through an unfamiliar area often associate with chickadee flocks,” which means if there’s an errant warbler about, you’ll most likely find it with chickadees.

Mulvihill is a relatively quiet place, but nonetheless a disappointing industrial hum permeates the air. The sounds of a leaf blower, a woodchipper, and wet tires on a distant wet road invade the brown fallen leaves, the gray tree trunks, the white sky, and the black tree tips.

I usually walk the yellow loop, but today, I have time, and because the ticks are sleeping in their tiny dens, hibernating through the winter on the blood of innocent pets and children, I feel emboldened to walk into “the Great Swamp,” as it’s called. (Anyone who doesn’t live on Long Island would think lightly of our preserves and our swamps.)

I pass Mulvihill Pond, which drains into Spring Farm Pond. Where once there were thousands of mallards, stocked for hunters, today there are 12. Bird flu.

I’ve walked for nearly a mile and still no chickadee. I stop every 50 feet or so just to listen. I hear no birds. In the distance, heavy machinery churns up another ranch house, built in the 1950s, to make way for some gleaming 5,000-square-foot escape with all the amenities.

Through the bare trees a pool surrounded by sod. Overhead, a handful of house finches pass; higher yet, the deep growl of a plane moves across the sky. I’m a mile and a half in, and still no chickadees.

In 1954, in Monroe County in western New York, 27,000 chickadees were observed flying east. I counted 40 once in March at Elizabeth Morton. In December 2007, Hugh McGuinness counted 217 in Amagansett, with the note, “Not really a high number considering the amount of time spent and the area covered,” but it stands as the high count for Long Island.

Chickadees make their nests in tree cavities, often used previously by woodpeckers. They like dead limbs, particularly, but they’ll also use a bird box placed four to seven feet aboveground and raise their family in your yard. Make sure the diameter of the hole in your nest box is only 1 1/8 inches.

By early June, fledglings are on the ground.

I’ve crept through the woods for an hour and a half and still no chickadees. On the plus side, the credit card in my pocket is starting to feel foreign, as I’ve acclimated to the moss and lichen. I pass an ancient boulder and a massive nest, high in a tree.

An illegal dumping ground. The back of a manse. Pool equipment tucked into the woods and then another pool. New construction. A payloader. Incongruous sod. Some new road. No chickadee. I double back, take a different turn.

If it’s possible to get lost in the woods in the Hamptons, I get lost, for a solid 10 minutes. The trail markers go brown to black to brown to blue to lost. I’m walking through piles of mountain laurel.

Suddenly nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees, a mixed flock in the branches above. Three “dees” and one sweet “fee-bee,” the chickadee’s spring song, here in the dead of winter. Two and a half miles in, on this unkempt portion of the trail, wild chickadees, exactly where they should be.

The flock follows me north, on their invisible trail through the trees, while I walk my own, out of the Great Swamp, past Mulvihill Pond, and then home.

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