Garden Visitor: The Black-Capped Chickadee
The black-capped chickadee, state bird of Maine and Massachusetts, is a member of the genus Poecile. Of the seven species of chickadee in North America, the black-capped chickadee has the broadest range, from Alaska and much of Canada south to California and the Appalachians, covering the northern half of the U.S.
The black-capped chickadee bears a dark cap and bib that contrasts with its white cheeks. The back feathers are greenish-gray, while the wing and tail feathers are dark gray with pale edges. Its sides are buff-colored and underside white. Both males and females, adults and juveniles are all very similar in appearance.
Approximately 4-3/4 to 5-3/4 inches long, these tiny birds weigh only 1/3 to 1/2 of an ounce. Extremely agile and quick, the chickadee can feed in any position, including upside down. Because of their high metabolism, chickadees spend nearly every daylight moment gleaning food.
"Here’s to the little chickadee;
The sexes are alike, you see.
It’s hard to tell the she from he;
But he can tell … and so can she!"
~ Harold Wilson
The chickadee's natural diet is about 70 percent animal matter, mostly insects and spiders, and 30 percent seeds and berries. Favorite weed seeds include those of the milkweed, goldenrod and ragweed plants.
Chickadees exhibit some interesting feeding habits. Once a chickadee has found a piece of food, it rarely swallows it on the spot; instead it carries it to a safe spot in which to eat. Chickadees are able to manipulate food with their feet if necessary, and also store food in anticipation of severe weather.
If you watch a flock of chickadees at a feeder, you will notice that they visit one at a time, in turn. Each flock has a well-established hierarchy, with the most dominant birds being allowed to feed first. A chickadee may display ruffled feathers or a ruffled crown as a sign of aggression toward less dominant flock mates.
Habits and Behavior
A generally non-migratory species, chickadees are not strong fliers and seldom fly for long periods. They survive in their home range all year round, even through frigid weather, by fluffing their feathers for insulation. After completing a molt in late summer and early fall, the birds are equipped with new, thick feathers that help keep them warm through the winter. The chickadee also demonstrates an important adaption to extremely cold temperatures in its ability to enter a state of regulated hypothermia. When weather demands it, the chickadee can lower its body temperature, and is thus able to slow down its metabolic rate and need for energy.
In winter, chickadees often form into a flock of their own kind, as well as associate with a mixed-species flock that may include nuthatches, woodpeckers and other birds. As the weather warms in spring, the chickadee flock disbands and separates into breeding pairs, an activity that frequently results in some territorial disputes between individual birds. Although chickadees in winter flocks announce themselves noisily at feeders, breeding pairs turn much quieter and more secretive as they build nests and raise their young.
Nesting and Young
Chickadees favor tree cavities such as snags or stubs for nesting. They prefer to excavate their own cavity, carrying wood chips away from the tree to avoid attracting predators.
Once the hole is excavated to their satisfaction, the pair spend several days preparing a soft nest for their eggs. The male brings food to the female to nourish her throughout the egg-laying process. An average chickadee clutch consists of seven eggs, which are colored a dull white with reddish-brown spots. While the female is responsible for incubation and brooding, the male makes many trips to and from the nest to provide food, mostly caterpillars, for the newly hatched chicks. The hatchlings’ mouths are edged in yellow, a feature which likely helps the parents locate them in the dark cavity. Even after the young birds fledge, the family remains together outside the nest for some time, with both parents continuing to feed their babies until they gain enough independence to set out on their own.
Chickadees are known to have a complex “vocabulary” of more than 15 different calls and sounds. Among the most common is the familiar “chickadee-dee-dee”, a call given when there is a disturbance between individual birds or when one individual is separated from the flock. A short, high, soft “tseet” call allows members of a pair or flock to stay in contact. A two-note call, “fee-bee” (with the first note slightly higher in pitch than the second) is usually given by the male, and is most often heard in the spring as the birds begin mating. There are variations in the sound of this call depending on the location of the population, according to author Susan M. Smith. Chickadees in Washington state can be heard singing “fee, fee, fee, fee,” with the notes all the same pitch, while the Carolina chickadee sings “fee-bee fee-bay” with a southern drawl. You can listen to chickadee sounds at the Great Backyard Bird Count website.
The chickadee’s habitat includes mixed hardwood-coniferous forests, woodlots and suburban backyards. These birds are welcome visitors to gardens, where they eat prodigious amounts of pests such as aphids, scale insects and snails. In winter, chickadees are frequent visitors to feeding stations that offer sunflower seeds, peanuts or suet.
Conifers are particularly important to chickadees, not only for shelter from stormy weather but also for their highly nutritious seeds. Other plants used by chickadees for food and shelter include birches (Betula spp.), sunflower (Helianthus spp.), serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), bayberry (Morella spp.), pines (Pinus spp.), hemlocks (Tsuga spp.) and viburnum (Viburnum spp.)
Very similar to the black-capped chickadee is the Carolina chickadee, which ranges throughout the southeastern U.S. The two species overlap in the mid-Atlantic states. Although the songs of the males of the two types are distinct, it is difficult to distinguish them visually unless you are able to compare them side by side. The black-capped chickadee is slightly larger than the Carolina chickadee, and has a longer tail and more white on the edges of its wings.
Other North American chickadees include the Mexican chickadee of the Southwest, the mountain chickadee from high regions in the West, and the boreal and gray-headed chickadees of the Far North and Northwest.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Black-Capped Chickadee
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Lab: Poecile Atricapillus
Black-Capped Chickadee by Susan M. Smith, Stackpole Books, 1997
Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adams, Rodale Press, 1994
Thumbnail photo by fishhawk
Chickadee on branch by Hschuyt (Heidi Schuyt)
Chickadee at feeder by Maia C
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