While in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, near Reno Nevada, I was lucky enough to discover a pair of chickadees at their nest cavity in a weathered Douglas fir stump. Hidden in camouflage, I spent three days with the pair of chickadees. My goal was to photograph the pair of chickadees together in courtship behavior.
This pair was very active at the nest. They knew I was nearby and they quickly became comfortable with my presence. The female does all the incubating. She would often appear in the nest hole. They male brought her various insects. They called back and forth to each other, still in the process of courtship. Typically, the male would call to the female, and she answered with an unmusical series of gargles. Sometimes she flew to the male in a nearby tree. One evening, the female answered the male, then popped out of the cavity. She spread her wings, making them quiver. The male swooped in, carrying an insect. He passed the insect to the female in a buggy kiss.
Scientists have been studying mountain chickadees and their ability to cache tens of thousands of seeds. They return to these seeds to survive the winter. The chickadees with the best memories are the ones that survive.
Female chickadees also choose the males with the best memories for mates. How do females know which chickadees are smartist? Scientists suspect there are traits in the courtship songs that indicate or serve as proxy for intelligence. It was a thrilling moment to witness this courtship behavior and to capture it in a photograph.