Throughout the winter, bands of small birds visit the orchards and ornamental trees of every village and farm, gleaning dormant insects and their eggs from the twigs and boughs. The best known member and the leader, apparently, of the company is the Chickadee. There are generally about half a dozen of these birds together, possibly the parents and young of the preceding summer. The whole company is rarely in sight at any one time; some are in one tree, some are flying to the next, one perhaps is on the ground. There is a constant interchange of lisping call-notes, which break into excited gurgles, and the familiar tee, dee, dee, dee, when something excites their alarm or curiosity. It is not hard to disturb their composure; they come more easily than almost any other bird to the squeaking sound that bird students make to attract the attention of birds. One fluffy head after other pitches into the tree nearest the performer; then, by short stages, the boldest comes nearer to the strange sight and sound, often within arm's length. When their curiosity is appeased, they return to their examination of the twigs and branches, or, if startled by a sudden movement, they dive into the nearest cover.
Their positions when feeding on slender twigs are extremely graceful, and their agility surprising. When gathering sunflower seeds, of which they are extremely fond, they cling to the under surface of the drooping head and pick till they loosen the seed. Then they fly with it to a branch and hammer it open. A favorite winter food is the berry of the poison ivy. By tying a bone or a piece of suet to the branches of trees near the house, not only Chickadees but other birds as well will be attracted to the spot, and will become regular winter visitors. They are by no means confined, however, to villages and farms. Often as we push through the deep snows of the winter forests, the only sound will be the distant lisp of this hardy bird.
Besides the notes heard so commonly in winter, the Chickadee has a pensive and extremely gentle whistle, which it utters while sitting motionless, and oftener in spring than at other seasons, though it may be heard in every month of the year. It consists of two notes, an exact interval apart, and each accented. It is often mistaken, especially in early spring, for the song of the Phœbe, but it may be distinguished by its purity and sweetness. It is easily imitated by whistling, and the bird will often answer, or even fly toward the person whistling, and survey him with astonishment.
It is generally believed by people who see the bird only in winter that the Chickadees retire northward in spring; it is true that they then no longer frequent the yards and gardens, but in the woods and retired orchards many a pair have excavated some decaying birch or apple stump, and after lining it warmly with moss and feathers, provided amply for the continuance of their race; sometimes as many as nine eggs are laid. In winter, the birds spend the night in holes, not necessarily the same in which they were bred.
Several writers have mentioned instances of the extreme boldness of this bird; Mr. Chapman has had a Chickadee perch on his hand. One can easily imagine it, but we do not need such a mark of confidence to feel strong affection for this companionable and winter-loving bird.