Chickadees! One of everybody’s favorite backyard birds. This tiny dynamo weighs only 1/3 of an ounce, equivalent to 3 pennies, and its heart beats 500 times a minute while at rest. It is also one of our most loyal subjects in and around our bird feeding stations. Some folks have found it easy to hand feed them. If you lay a glove on the feeder, with Sunflower, Peanuts or perhaps Safflower in the palm, they will soon start feeding from it. You then put your hand into the glove and remain very quiet. Before long the Chickadees will carefully approach and eventually will feed from your hand. You can slowly move your hand about the area and they will soon follow the new food source.
Chickadees have a black cap and bib with white cheeks. Their backs are a soft gray along with the wing feathers that are white along the edges. The under parts are white progressing to a soft buff color on the sides. The eyes are dark making it difficult to see them through the black cap.
This popular little bird is found in deciduous and mixed forests, open woods, parks, willow thickets, cottonwood groves, and disturbed areas. In fact Chickadees are found in any habitat that has trees and woody shrubs from forests and woodlots to neighborhoods and parks. They are a very curious sort investigating everything in its home territory including people.
Chickadees are quick to locate backyard bird feeders making them one of the first birds people begin to identify along with other common feeder birds such as Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Mourning Doves. But these little birds rarely remain at the feeder except to grab a seed and leave. They often fly up on a nearby tree branch where they hold their food between their toes to pry it open with their beak. Watching Chickadees flitter back and forth to the bird feeder can be very entertaining. They can be very acrobatic spinning quickly in mid flight to change directions. They even have the ability of short upside down maneuvers.
At bird feeders hickadees prefer sunflower, safflower, peanuts, and suet. They cling very well to feeders without perches or have little room for most other birds and are easily accommodated at window feeders. In the winter they feed on seeds, berries and other plant matter. They peck a hole in the shell of a seed, then chip away eating tiny bits of seed while expanding the hole. The rest of the year as much as 80% of their diet consists of insects, small spiders, and other animal protein.
In early fall Chickadees will form a winter feeding flock that may be up to as many as 6 to 10 individual birds. Many other species of birds, including titmice, nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers, can often be found foraging in these flocks. Mixed flocks stay together because the chickadees call out whenever they find a good source of food. This calling out forms cohesion for the group, allowing the other birds to find food more efficiently. These flocks will vigorously defend their feeding territory of up to 20 acres against other groups of Chickadees. If one group of Chickadees enters another flock’s feeding territory you’ll see a lot of posturing and hear their hoarse scolding call “chickadee-dee-dee,” which is where the name of this bird is derived. These feeding flocks will maintain a distinct pecking order staying together until early spring. At that time the males become intolerant of each other and break away to form nesting pairs. You may be able to count the winter flock visiting your backyard bird feeders as they tend to cross open areas 1 or 2 at a time, until all are safely together.
During the winter months Chickadees will survive the frigid nights from the energy stored up during the day feeding. But this tiny bird has another adaptation that helps them survive even the coldest nights. Chickadees will go into a state of torpor, the ability to lower their metabolic rate to conserve energy, which reduces their body temperature by 10-12 °C. But even at rest this little speedster’s heart beats approximately 500 times a minute. In the morning it may take as long as 20 minutes before they’re ready to fly off and begin another day of feeding. During the coldest of the winter months many songbirds are only 36 hours from starvation surviving only on what food they consume during the daylight hours. The benefits of winter bird feeding have been highly studied by biologists. We know from studies in Northern Wisconsin that 50% more birds survived the northern winter when bird feeders were available to supplement their normal diet.
Don’t let this bird fool you with its variety of songs. Its spring call sounds like “pee wee, pee-wee” with the first note higher than the second. In late March the winter feeding flocks will have disbanded and pairs formed. Each pair will start to establish and defend their nesting territory which can encompass more than 10 acres. Chickadees are considered secondary cavity nesters preferring to use old woodpecker holes, even man-made nest boxes. But if need be they can excavate a cavity in a rotted out knot-hole of dead standing timber.
The female will select a nesting site. If it needs to be excavated both of them will work to create a cavity. Once the site is ready the female will build a very soft tall nest cupped in the center using mosses and plant fibers. She will then line the cup with fur, hair, even feathers. Once the nest is completed the female Chickadee will lay an average of 6 white eggs that have fine brown spots on them. Prior to leaving the nest the eggs are hidden from view with moss. She will incubate the eggs for 12 days with some help from the male. After hatching it will be another 12 - 14 days before the young birds are ready to leave the nest.
Chickadees are fairly easy to attract into a nest box and these nest boxes are sparrow proof. The opening for a Chickadee box only needs to be 1 1/8” which is too small for House Sparrows to enter. Place about an inch of wood shavings or coarse sawdust in the bottom of the box. Locate the box from 4 to 20 feet off the ground and in an area with about 60% shade during the day. Keep the opening unobstructed by branches or leaves. They may also use these nest boxes as winter roosts during cold snaps.
Black-capped Chickadees are one of the most beloved backyard birds, constantly busy and always entertaining. They can live up to 6 or 7 years in the wild although first year mortality rates are high. Their population appears to be secure for now. But, as with all cavity nesting birds, that could suffer from the continued removal of dead trees in forests and woodlots.
Fun Chickadee Facts
• Black-Capped Chickadees cache away seeds and other food items in various hiding places remembering the hundreds of places where they have stashed a meal.
• Every fall Black-capped Chickadees reprogram their tiny brains new neurons to adapt to social and environmental changes.
• In the chickadee-dee-dee call the Chickadee the more dee notes there are means a higher threat level.
• Winter flocks with chickadees serving as the nucleus contain mated chickadee pairs and non-breeding Chickadees, but normally not the offspring of the adult pairs in that flock.
• Chickadee calls are a complex, language-like form for communicating information on identity along with the recognition of other flocks, predator alarms and contact calls.
• Other birds such as nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, creepers, warblers and vireos who associate with flocks of Chickadees will respond to alarm calls by Chickadees even if their species has no alarm call.
• When temperatures plummets below zero chickadees sleep in their own individual cavities.
• There is a hierarchy in Chickadee flocks although some of the Chickadees may be “winter floaters” not belonging to a flock. These birds may fit different levels in the pecking order with different flocks.
• The oldest known wild chickadee lived to be 12 years and 5 months old.