A Nest Divided: Maine's Great Chickadee Debate

Feb 28, 2019

There's a big debate simmering in the Legislature, and it's certain to split Maine residents into two groups. No, not Democrats and Republicans. The debate is about birds — chickadees specifically. And there's now a bill that would require lawmakers to choose which particular kind of chickadee is the official state bird.

Brian Olsen, an associate professor of biology and ecology at the University of Maine, refuses to take sides in the great chickadee debate, but he does want state lawmakers to know there are big differences between the boreal chickadee and the black-capped chickadee, which are both found in Maine. He says the black-capped has a song in the springtime, which he demonstrated for the State and Local Government Committee.

The black-capped chickadee
Credit Wikimedia Commons

"That song is not flashy, nor presumptuous. It just gets the job done," he says.

And that song, he says, should not to be confused with the call we typically associate with the black-cap chickadee. Olsen says that signature sound actually has a purpose.

"You might not know, but the black-cap chickadee call - that very charismatic ‘chicka-dee-dee-dee’ - the number of 'dees' at the end is a judgement that the chickadee makes about how dangerous a particular threat would be," he says.

Olsen says the black-capped chickadees at his home are not afraid of him — not at all. "In fact, they seem fairly confident they could take me in a fair fight," he says.

And the boreal chickadee? It has no song, Olsen says. 

"Not frivolous birds, the boreal chickadees," he says.

But the boreal does have a unique call, though it's likely that many Mainers, especially those who have not ventured into northern Maine, have not heard the boreal's call before, much less seen one.

That's because its habitat is boreal forests. Olsen says the boreal does venture to the southern part of the state from time to time, but it's rare.

Now back to the debate at hand. It goes back to 1927, when the Maine Legislature named “the chickadee” the state bird.

The problem, says Maine Audubon's Nick Lund, is this: "It's not a bird. It's a family of birds. So, it would be like saying the state dog is a dog. Or the state pizza is pizza."

In fact, Lund says, Maine is one of just two states that hasn't specified which species of bird is the official one. The other is Utah, which generically lists the seagull as its bird of choice — a curious decision on its face given there's no sea in Utah. But in fact it was the California gull that saved residents there from an onslaught of crickets that were decimating crops in the mid-1800s. Likewise, it was the chickadee's ravenous appetite for insects that apparently factored in the Legislature's decision to anoint it official status in Maine.

But which one, the boreal or the black-capped?

The boreal chickadee
Credit Flickr

That's the question confronting state lawmakers, who are now considering a bill that asks the Legislature to choose. And Lund says it's a tough decision.

"They both stay in Maine all year,” Lund says. “They both are friendly and are attracted to humans. And, though you need to be in their presence to understand, seem optimistic, cheerful, friendly and industrious.”

But there are also some big differences, pros and cons.

UMaine's Brian Olsen objectively outlined them to lawmakers on Wednesday.

"The other state that claims the black-capped chickadee, as has been said, is Massachusetts. And I'll leave that, at that," he says.

Ouch.

But then there's this little tidbit about the boreal: "boreal chickadees have been reported a number of times at deer carcass sites eating frozen meat, which I think is fairly robust for a songbird," he says.

Ew.

So, it’s the occasional meat-eater boreal vs. the ubiquitous black-capped, friend of flatlanders.

Of course, there are more serious considerations confronting lawmakers. Ornithologists warn that climate change is pushing the boreal farther and farther north, so it's presence here could become increasingly rare. The black-capped, found in states throughout the northeast, is likely here to stay.

In any event, the issue could be divisive, as it is in Olsen's family: his son likes the black-capped because it's common, his daughter the boreal because it's rare.

"We are a house divided," he says.

For his part, Olsen says Maine could just go with the common loon. That way, he says, the state wouldn't have to change its license plate, one version of which already features the black-capped.

Lawmakers will make their preference known in the coming weeks. Or maybe they'll do what the Legislature has done on this issue since 1927: nothing.

The sounds of the boreal and black-capped chickadee in this story came from recordists Mark Dennis and Doug Hitchcox, who submitted them to the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Originally posted 4:29 p.m. Feb. 28, 2019.