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Learning to Speak Chickadee

As I write this from my front porch swing, three chickadees perch ten feet away in our maple tree, trying to determine if my presence poses a sufficient threat to keep them from visiting the feeder above my head. One flits toward the feeder perch in a momentary show of bravery, but then aborts the mission at the last second, chattering as he backpedals. He retreats to the tree to report his findings to the others. Eavesdropping, I overhear their assessment of me and discover that I currently rate a 4 on the Dee-Meter.

The Dee-Meter

The Dee-Meter, simply put, is the number of dees that a chickadee attributes to any given threat. And no, scientists don’t call it a Dee-Meter; instead they use terms like “social complexity hypothesis” and “adaptive significance of call variation in parids.” And I’m definitely not doing it justice to reduce a chickadee call to the dees. Surprisingly complex information is being communicated in the chickas too. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that scientists consider chickadee calls to be “one of the most sophisticated and exacting systems of communication of any land animal.” Not to be outdone, Jim Robbins, in The Wonder of Birds, writes, “Chickadee language — both in calls and song — is the most sophisticated animal language in the world." I’m guessing you didn’t see that coming. I sure didn’t. Here in the Southeast United States, the Carolina Chickadee is so common — present twelve months out of the year — that it’s all too easy to take for granted. But apparently we’ve vastly underestimated these excitable little birds. All that namesake chickadee-chatter in my front yard and yours is communicating a complex amount of information about their environment.

It’s not just the six specific notes that their language breaks into, but the syntax of that language. The introductory notes appear to signal the approach of a predator, with subsequent notes communicating whether the threat is perched off the ground (and how high) or in flight. Certain notes increase when a chickadee is in flight, presumably keeping the flock together with comments like “Here we go, y’all” and “I’m headed over here.” Trailing notes invite the flock to newly discovered food. The next time you listen in on a flock of chickadees, think of the free-flowing conversation of a lively group of friends at a dinner party. No, they’re not exactly reciting Shakespeare, reminds Steve Nowicki, an animal communications scientist at Duke University. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t take all this chatter for granted.

But now consider the Dee-Meter. The greater the threat of the predator, the more dees are added to the trailing end of their alarm call. Studies have shown that it’s all about the size of the threat, not the size of the predator. It’s the smaller raptors that give the greatest concern to a small songbird. A tiny Eastern Screech-Owl is more likely to nab a chickadee than a Great Horned Owl. A diminutive American Kestrel poses a greater danger than a clunky Red-tailed Hawk. And thus the smaller raptors tend to elicit more dees. Robbins illustrates the wide spectrum of the Dee-Meter: “The pygmy-owl, a small, fierce, and agile predator that loves to gobble up the birds, causes [chickadees] to add up to twenty-three extra dees on the end of their cry. The Great Gray Owl, a bird that is far larger than a pygmy owl but which seldom eats chickadees and thus is less of a threat, earned only an extra half a dee.” I wonder if the Great Gray Owl takes it personally.

So where are humans on the Dee-Meter? This morning, apparently, I’m a 4 — more menacing than a hefty half-a-dee owl but far tamer than that 23-dee nightmare. I’d like to think that these yard-mates have identified me as friend rather than foe. After all, when I fill my feeders, the chickadees are reliably the first ones to find the feast. They appear within minutes, sometimes even seconds. And although I might be missing the subtleties of the conversation, it appears that they announce their find to others. “So reliable are the chickadee's vocalizations that other species heed their warnings,” writes Ackerman. This includes not just other bird species but even squirrels and chipmunks. If my yard was a church, I think the chickadees would be in charge of the greeting team, the safety team, and the announcements.

I don’t speak chickadee, but I’m learning to listen for the dee’s. Specifically, it’s become a sort of metaphor for the way I assess the world around me. As I engage the day’s various threats, worries, and news headlines, I often ask myself, “Well, how many dees would I give that?” It’s a perspective-shaper for me, because sometimes the threats that seem most looming barely deserve a dee, and the things that seem “mostly harmless” may justify a louder warning. Let’s briefly consider both: those threats we need to give less credibility to, and those that deserve more attention.

Dee-escalating Our Fears

The most often-repeated command in the Bible is “Fear not!” God has to repeat that encouragement to humanity from Abraham (Genesis 15:1) all the way to Revelation (Revelation 2:10), which says a lot about the propensity for false readings on our Dee-Meter. What brings you fear? Fear of loss? Fear of death? Fear of the unknown? Fear of failure?

Author Russell Moore writes, “The first step to becoming a people of truth is to recognize what makes us afraid, and to ask why and who benefits from that fear." When our courage loses out to our fear, our Capital-E-Enemy benefits. But it doesn’t end there; others also reap the profit of our own anxieties. Fear of death drives us frantically to the next miracle product. Fear of rejection pushes us to pursue the current media-defined “look” dealt out in the right clothes and right cars and right interests. Fear of loss motivates us to those things that can give us greater control, often revealed in how we build our financial portfolio, or how we hoard toilet paper. Fear of the future catches us up in the whirlwinds of political panic, conspiracy theories, and stocking ammunition.

There are entire sectors of our society that would love nothing more than for you to live with a modicum of fear: not enough to immobilize you, but just enough to keep you regularly running back in their direction. The hook can be baited with a fear of aging or irrelevance or change or having something taken away, or just a good old-fashioned “fear of missing out.” The use of fear is a lamentably effective means of influencing consumer spending, news engagement, voting behavior, and so much more.

When these perceived threats sound the alarm on our Dee-Meter, often the de-escalation comes not from making our fears smaller but from seeing our God as bigger. “Fear not!” says our Lord, again and again and again. But he follows that command with a piece of himself: a promise or a plan or an attribute that speaks to the situation — maybe his power, or his sovereignty, or his love.

  • Don’t be afraid… for I will be with you (Isaiah 43:1-2).

  • Don’t be afraid… for you have my favor (Luke 1:30).

  • Don’t be afraid… for this threat will amount to nothing (2 Kings 19:5-7).

“He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world,” says the Apostle John, emboldening his readers as he reminds them that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:4 & 18, ESV). God enables us to live life chicka-chicka without all the dee-dee-dees.

Amazingly, when Jesus wanted to illustrate the care of our Heavenly Father that frees us from fear, he asked us to consider the birds. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:26-27) After all, despite developing a fine-tuned language of warning, chickadees don’t spend their entire day nervously assessing threats — a fact that’s evident to anyone who’s observed them. Chickadees are known for their self-confident boldness, their inquisitive outlook, even their whimsical playfulness. They’re probably the birds most likely to eat from your hand, or (as I once learned in Yosemite with some Mountain Chickadees) to perch atop your backpack at a hiking rest-stop to inquire about your trail mix. They are sober to threats but joyous to life. Jesus encourages us to interpret our perceived threats within the realities of a loving Heavenly Father who feeds sparrows and sparrow-watchers alike. Don’t live life on the nuclear-option side of the Dee-Meter spectrum. Keep calm and carry on.

The Great Dee-ceiver

Yes, our world is filled with perceived giants, and there’s so much that seems to threaten our equilibrium. Perhaps your Facebook wall is a testament to the latest “giants in the land,” the place where you repost and comment on the destructive ills of the world, your “share” button synonymous with your “panic” button. We feel the tensions of “culture war” and sound the alarm when it appears that a freedom or moral tenet is at risk. But too often we reserve all our extra dees for the flavor-of-the-day threats and miss the ones that may bear the truer danger.

As the story goes, an editor from The London Times wrote several early-20th Century authors asking them to contribute essays answering the question, “In your opinion, what is wrong with the world today?” The inimitable G.K. Chesterton wrote back:

“Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”

It’s a simple enough thing for us to presume that the greatest threats posed to us are the external ones, outside our own responsibility or control. Russell Moore warns how easily we are “tempted to be too judgmental with the sins of the outside world and not judgmental enough with those on the inside (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). It’s always easier to do the reverse because that’s self-protection, not integrity.” This call for self-reflection brings us to the center of our own wayward hearts. How easy it is for us to presume that the greatest sinful threats in this world are the ones we’re probably not personally tempted to commit anyway. The threats are “other people.” Chesterton reminds me of the prophet Nathan, staring his errant king squarely in the eyes and saying, “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7).

The Dee-Meter should sound most stridently when I point it at my own heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) It would be a wonderful reverse double-standard for us to engage the world with gospel grace wherever we can, and to look upon our own hearts with a healthy suspicion that recognizes our capacity to shipwreck our faith. We often reverse these attitudes, exuding suspicion and hoarding grace. The greatest threat to me is me. That honest assessment avoids the finger-pointing Garden attitudes of “The Devil made me do it.” My heart is perfectly capable of its very own sin swan-dive, thank you very much. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee.

And yet Jesus, in an act bold and broken, engaged the death-threat of our own hearts with a Cross. He removed the fangs from the 23-dee predator we couldn’t escape—the death of death itself! By faith in him, all of those Heavenly-Father bird-promises give us courage and a freedom from worry, because a God who would give us his own Son must surely be committed to our good (Romans 8:32). His work, begun in us, is a commitment to forgive—and to one day make perfect—our dee-dee-dee hearts.


Very enlightening as well as a most encouraging reminder of God’s amazing faithfulness. Thank you!


Really enjoyed this, thanks for sharing the chickadee lexicon. And thank you for the encouragement - prone to wander, lord I feel it, indeed!

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