We all have animal totems, animals that we have a certain affinity for. It seems that we have one for each element, and my Air element totem is apparently a Chickadee.

You’d think you’d want something majestic like a mighty eagle or wise old owl, but I’m actually pretty happy with chickadees. It started out popping them with BB guns when I was little, but gradually became a real affection and admiration for them. Chickadees are cool in a number of ways.

No other bird messes with chickadees, because if you mess with one chickadee you’re messing with all of them. I’ve seen them swarm crows so bad the crows couldn’t fly and tumbled out of the air. Chickadees are so efficient at protecting the flock that other sweet and mild mannered birds like cardinals will frequently hang around them. The chickadees allow any sweet, sociable, non-flocking bird species to be among them and seem to enjoy the company.

They have a highly advanced but very simple social structure, they’re like the Hopi of the bird world. They are rarely if ever aggressive with one another and if a little spat does break out, it’s over in less than a second. I used to live in the inner city and feed the birds. I had one feeder and hundreds of chickadees. I used to watch them for hours as they chatted away taking turns at the feeder. They’d line up along the fence in a queue and then take turns at the feeder without any hogging or squabbling and it’s clearly voluntary. Nobody is making them do it, chickadees just love to play fair.

The benefit of fair play is play itself. Chickadees are the most sociable bird I know of, they absolutely love to talk and play ALL the time. They’ll talk to anyone, if you even make an attempt at their call they will always answer back and keep chatting away until you tire of the conversation. They have basically 3 calls, all part of the same fractal progression, which brings us to the real reason for this post.

The chickadee calls first with a single tone, if you answer with a single tone, he will answer back with a double tone, if you answer that with a double tone, he will answer back with a quadruple tone, but it appears to stop there. If you answer the quad tone with a quad tone, he merely keeps repeating the quad tone in response, I’ve never heard them go to the next fractal step of an eight part tone.

So I’m out walking my dog one day and the chickadees are around engaged in the usual chickadee banter and I get the idea to try it out. I went thru the series and got the expected answers here and there, but when I went to the next fractal in the series and answered with what I thought the eight part tone should sound like, they all went nuts doing the four part calls but none answered with an eight part response.

I practiced on the home flock in my yard over the next week or so, but never got anything beyond the quadruple tone out of any of them, so I kind of figured they didn’t have it in their repertoire and moved on to other things.

So this morning I’m out walking with my dog again and I’m doing some deep breath work. It’s right after a thunderstorm and the air smells and tastes better than any other time, so I’m getting my fill and receding into deep thought. As we’re getting back toward home, I hear something that’s not part of the normal noises pulling my mind back to the surface.

It didn’t even register at first, it was just the subconscious flag going up but I couldn’t pick out any sounds that shouldn’t be there. Then as I’m standing on my back steps listening, I hear it. It’s a chickadee doing an eight part call. I’m thinking maybe it’s a different kind of bird or I’m hallucinating or something. I hear it again and it is most definitely a chickadee calling.

The call sounded a little different than what I was trying to do based purely on the fractal progression. It was essentially the same, but had a kind of swing or melodic quality to it that I had missed never having heard it before. I did the call back as I heard it and two chickadees answered back with the eight part call. Their calls both had the same pattern, but with slightly different tonal modifications like they were still trying to get it down. Their other calls are pretty standardized, so maybe that is what they’re trying to do. I did a few more just to pinch myself and prove it was real, I couldn’t believe they were actually doing it.

I’ve been chatting with chickadees for over 40 years and I’ve never once heard them do that eight part call. The only thing that made me think of trying it in the first place was my recent studies on musical progression and fractals. I was just curious to see if they would even recognize the next fractal in the same series as their language. I have no idea what to make of it yet, right now I’m just blown away because it’s one of those experiments you never really expected to work.

Yeah, I’m pretty happy with my bird totem… chickadees rock.