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Capitol Hill Aviary | Hill chickadees kill their own brain cells

Flaming Chickadee, originally uploaded by Murder Bird.

Nope, this has nothing to do with Initiative 502. It’s just basic chickadee biology.

Every autumn, the black-capped chickadee (which has been featured on CHS Aviary before) kills off some of its neurons and grows new ones as replacements. Biologists don’t know for sure why this happens, but they think the chickadee is making room for new information in its tiny bird brain. As those neurons die and get replaced, the birds are probably losing and creating memories about changing aspects of the environment, food sources, or social dynamics in the flock.

The chickadee’s brain-destruction survival strategy makes it quite different from the northern flicker, which has a specialized skull to keep its brain cushioned and undamaged when its beak impacts trees.

Interested in learning more?

  • For information and fun facts about black-capped chickadees, check out their page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Here’s a recording of the black-capped chickadee’s distinctive song, and a separate recording of its call. If the chickadees in your yard don’t sound like these recordings, never fear. Our Pacific Northwest chickadees have highly variable vocalizations.

Previous Aviary Posts

Melissa Koosmann is a freelance writer and resident of Capitol Hill. She writes about education, culture, and nature — and, sometimes, birds for CHS.

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