Black-capped Chickadee: Poecile atricapillus

800px-Poecile-atricapilla-001Black-capped Chickadee (source: Wikipedia)

I’m in an institute that is famous for its long-term study of Great Tits. And, don’t get me wrong, tits are awesome. But I’m a North Country girl at heart, so whenever I hear my colleagues talk about tits, I think fondly of their North American cousins, the chickadees.

Chickadees, titmice, and tits (Passeriformes: Paridae) are small, woodland birds found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and Africa. They mostly eat seeds, and some of them are really colorful, like the Blue Tit, or just plain adorable, like the Long-tailed Tit (which actually may not be a tit, but let’s pretend for the sake of cuteness that they’re still in the Paridae and not in this Aegithalidae nonsense):

Eurasian_blue_tit_LancashireJapanese-Long-Tailed-Tit-2Blue tit (above) and long-tailed tit (below).

But black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus, which are common feeder birds throughout Canada and the northern US, will always be my favorite parids.

The word “chickadee” comes from the song: in the black-capped’s case, they say “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” though there’s a significant amount of regional variation, and the calls frequently change depending on the bird’s context.

Incidentally, in the States you sometimes hear “chickadee” being used as a term of endearment towards women. It’s not a word I would ever use, but to the best of my knowledge it’s generally positively received.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology section of the word “black” is rather, erm, lengthy. Which isn’t surprising, as color names are really, really, really cool. For starters, color boundaries are culturally-dependent — I encourage you some time to try to convince a French person that an American school bus, which any American will swear up and down is “yellow,” is anything but “orange.” Whereby “encourage” I mean “I wish you good luck, ’cause you’re going to need it.” The only Basque word I know is “urdin,” which means blue, green, and gray. And the Himba tribe in northern Namibia make green-blue distinctions in ways that utterly stymie Westerners. No, seriously, go read this article about this phenomenon, it’s amazing.

Furthermore, the number of basic color terms that a language has will nearly uniquely determine which color terms that language has. For example, if a language has only two terms, it will be “white” (light/warm) and “black” (dark/cool). Three terms? White, black, and red. Five terms? White, black, red, green, yellow. Six? White, black, red, green, yellow, blue. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay wrote a book about this phenomenon, and it’s really, really cool.

(Incidentally, Bardi, an Aboriginal Australian language I very briefly studied when I was an undergrad, is one of those white-black-red languages, but has dozens of terms for how shiny something is. Okay, I’m shutting up now.)

Anyway, the English word “black” is cognate with Middle Dutch and Old Saxon blac meaning “ink,” but it’s not cognate with the Old Norse blakkr, which means “a color animals are, chiefly gray or dark brown,” as blakkr comes from the Germanic blank meaning “white” via an intermediate animal-color-name of “gray or light brown.” Ain’t etymology great?

The word “cap” has the hilarious OED notation of “precise sense not definable” and comes from the Latin word cappa meaning “cloak, cape, or cope” (copes are those cape-like things Catholic priests wear on special occasions). Because cloaks have hoods. And hoods are kind of caps. Or something. Your guess is as good as mine, but given that the medieval Church wrote a lot of things down, apparently this etymology is supremely well-attested.

Behold, two copes, no caps.

A cape and a cap!

The genus name Poecile from the Latin word poecile meaning “colonnade or gallery.” Bear with me. The Greek word ποικίλη (“poikile”) means “many-colored,” and, indeed, tits are many-colored! The link is that the στοά ποικίλη (“stoa poikile,” literally “many-colored gallery,” often translated as “painted porch“) in Athens was just nicknamed the “poikile,” and the Romans Latinized the name and then applied it more generally without actually checking to see what the word itself meant.

maxresdefaultThe original “poecile.”

Cool, huh?

Finally, atricapillus just means “black head hair.” The word atri- comes from the Latin ater meaning “black” (cf. “atrocious”, or, if you’re really feeling your cephalopods, “atrament”). The word -cap- comes from the Latin caput meaning “head.” Finally, –pilus is Latin for “hair” (which should sound vaguely familiar from the study of bacteria, for those of you who have a general biology background). Yes, this is where the word “capillary” comes from — capillaries being the blood vessels that are as thin as a hair on your head.

black-capped_chickadee_587npJust look at that beautiful black head-hair!

By the way, for those of you not privileged enough to live in a place where chickadees are common, fun facts: (1) they’re super-friendly, with a bit of patience and some bird seed you can get them to eat out of your hand, and (2) I’ve seen them eat roadkill. Now you know.


2 thoughts on “Black-capped Chickadee: Poecile atricapillus

  1. Pingback: Yellowhammer: Emberiza citrinella | Name This Bird

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