The sound of an angry Chickadee is not far off the sound of a happy Chickadee but it’s different enough to cause notice. Admittedly it’s hard to imagine a truly angry or spiteful Chickadee period. It’s sort of like trying to imagine a “mean” sound out of a “Mr. Barky” chew toy. A ticked off chickadee – and yes they can get ticked-off – will tend to drop the “chicka” part of its call and put emphasis on the “dee dee”. They do this with such gusto that the “dee dee” becomes a string of Chickadeean profanity sounding like “zee zee zee.” I mention this because for the past several weeks my backyard Chickadees have been acting particularly testy lately. Their actions have, in turn, incited the rest of the avian population to act the same way.
The center of all this unrest is a certain tree hole. Every now and then all the birds in the area focus their angst on an old flicker hole in the willow tree across the creek. I was first alerted to this phenomenon early one afternoon as the sound of disturbed chickadees drifted down to my ears. Soon their “zee zeeing” was joined by some frantic White-breasted Nuthatch tooting, Cardinal chipping, and the hoarse barking of a Red-bellied Woodpecker. A Dark-eyed Junco soon joined the fray (you know it’s got to be good when these tiny gray and white mobsters show up – such vicious monsters, they are).This had all the makings of a classic mobbing by all the peeping squeaking residents from the land of unwanted toys. Approaching the spot I expected to see a murderous cat slinking through the underbrush or perhaps a Cooper’s Hawk whose perch location was just discovered. Instead, all the birds were directing their efforts towards the empty entrance of that foreclosed woodpecker hole.
One by one the birds approached the cavity and, like timid schoolchildren, cautiously peeked in. Then, apparently seeing something horrible within, they would dash away in a renewed fit of screaming. The Junco and Cardinal never dared to take a look. A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches added their tin horn vocalizations to the scene – something that surprised me because I didn’t know any of these guys were in the neighborhood. One these nuthatches even flew across the creek to investigate me during the height of the fracas. He landed a few inches over my head and stared me in the eye as if to say “either you is wid us or agin us…what will it be!”
Nothing ever appeared at the hole entrance during the time I watched. The whole scene was over in a minute or two as the mob lost interest. Fortunately, I caught a bit of this action on video and you can watch it for yourself in this sequence (here). The sound track alone will provide you with sounds from each of the above-mentioned birds.
This was not to be the only time this happened, however. I’ve been witness to it at least three more times over the past week and I believe it is still going on. The bird crowd has varied in composition, but always consists of the core of Chickadees, Juncos, Cardinals, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Last week it was a pair of Tufted Titmice that joined the protest and played peek-a-boo with the hole (see below). Each time, however, the afternoon revolt started with the chickadees, flared for a few anxious minutes, and then quietly ended.
I’m guessing that there is a Screech Owl hanging out in that dark place – like Winnie the Poo’s “Wol” except without the misspelled sign. I’m also guessing that the chickadees must initially spot the owl whenever it shows itself at the entrance (as they are wont to do during the day). I also have no proof of this except for a very angry mob of otherwise cheerful birds. Even though I’ve tried on numerous occasions to catch a glimpse of whatever lives in that hole, I’ve yet to see a thing.
Real or imaginary, there is something dark and suspicious in that hole. Perhaps it is the hole itself that plays upon the minds of the little birds that flock about it. That dark void may open some small dark fearbox placed upon a narrow shelf within the tiny chickadee mind. The chickadees then whip the crowd into a frenzy (it is sooooooooooo easy to get a nuthatch hot and bothered). “The sky is falling’” says Chickadee Little, “and the beast within that hole is causing it. IT is the black hole which harbors evil. Expose it in the bright light of day, I tell you. Zee!”
You know, actually seeing the owl in the hole would kinda ruin all this fantasy. In true cinematic form, it is best to never see the beast at all. The hole itself is enough. Fear the hole.