Calling in the Mob

The black-capped chickadee.

The black-capped chickadee may be the perfect songbird. It is vocal and approachable, inquisitive and dependable. Even the casual birdwatcher finds in the chickadee a neighbor, a friend, an entertainer, a mobster. A mobster? Well, not exactly Al Capone. But if you’re willing to join its mob, the chickadee will make you an offer you can’t refuse.

The Mob, in birder parlance, is a noisy, frenetic assembly of birds ganging up on some common enemy. Chickadees tend to be the kingpins. They begin the assault with an array of call notes. A sharp zeeet comes in response to an approaching predator – a hawk or owl in flight, for example, or a weasel or human walking into the territory. The more familiar chick-a-dee-dee calls are delivered in the presence of a stationary predator. Chickadees vary the rate or urgency of this call or add more dee notes to convey to allies in The Mob the distance or immediacy of the threat.

So a hawk or an owl minding its own business in the woods may soon find itself in a maelstrom of chickadees. The Mob swarms and swirls, darts and dives, shouts and scolds in a kind of tactical turf warfare to persuade the predator to get lost. Other birds in the woods, when they hear the chickadees going at it, dart in to join the fracas. The Mob is, after all, strength in numbers. It soon includes nuthatches issuing yank-yank calls, goldencrowned kinglets delivering short tsee notes and, particularly from southern New England southward, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens repeating raspy scold notes.

Although The Mob is the enemy of the predator, it can be a friend of the birder. A Mob is a songbird magnet, exerting its force on more elusive species deeper in the woods – thrushes, warblers, and tanagers, for example – that dart in to investigate the commotion.

You can employ Mob psychology yourself in the pursuit of birds. A birder who repeats a soft, wispy spshsh-spshsh-spshsh is imitating some of those avian scold notes. Spishing, or pishing as we also call it, is universal bird lingo for danger. When you spish, songbirds zoom in to investigate. Chickadees often lead the way.

But why would a bird approach The Mob? Why not fly away from danger? For one thing, there may be a bit of altruism going on here, synergy in birds of a feather flocking together. But self-preservation also figures in The Mob. Owls, of course, hunt by stealth. They surprise their prey, closing the deal with a silent, deadly grasp of the talons. A songbird that might otherwise become owl food would do well to know the predator’s location. So many birders add an owl call – the eerie trill of an eastern screech owl works well – to their spishing.

As with any bird-finding, employ moderation. Excessive spishing can be a form of harassment, so don’t overdo it, especially during the breeding season. Once the chickadees respond and the commotion rises, lay off the spishing and enjoy the fruits of The Mob mentality.

Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, field guide, and consulting naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Plainfield, Vermont.

  1. Vicky → in Waterbury
    May 24, 2011

    It’s good to see Brian finally recognizes the wonder chickadees bring to the world.  I’m sure Brian doesn’t remember me, but in a conversation more than 5 years ago, he made a disparaging remark about the all so common chickadee and how everyone has them at their feeders.  Ever since I’ve been going to write an ode to this friendly, spirited bird, so obviously full of the joy of life.  I haven’t witnessed the mobbing, but chickadees are the friendliest birds in my section of the woods.  Instead of quietly devouring bird seed, like nuthatches and blue jays do, they cheerfully call everyone to the feast they have found.  Being dare devils, they fly in for a seed at a feeder inches from my head, while I fill another.  They will also land on your hand for a seed, if you stand still long enough, being great teachers of patience.  I know because I’ve done it twice.  Still, unlike ducks who will follow anyone around looking for more handouts, the chickadee is always a free spirit, flying back to shelter with it’s bounty.  Sure it’s fun to catch a glimpse of a reclusive bird that lives far in the woods.  Though it it technically true of every species, if the chickadee were to disappear the world would be a much sadder place.

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