Chickadees

Feb 16, 2023 | The Sandpiper

I have often lamented in these pages of my sad loss of backyard birds when my neighbor destroyed the wonderful habitat of the half acre yard next door to me by cutting down all the trees. It was a great loss. (see this month’s “Letter to an Environmental Assassin”) 

One of the birds that frequents my yard only sporadically now is the Black-capped Chickadee. Probably one of the cutest birds in the world, this little high-energy winged creature seems to be fearless of humans – or just friendly. Here are some fun Chickadee facts: 

There are 7 species of Chickadee in North America (see pictures), with the Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees the most-widespread and well known. They all share a similar body style with a round head, short pointed bill, short rounded wings and mostly black, gray and white plumage. There are about 35 subspecies of Chickadee, being separated by slight differences in physical attributes, behavior of molecular structure. Chickadees live in forested areas (which is why mine disappeared), but will frequent backyard feeders, eating suet and black oil sunflower seeds. Chickadees love a variety of insects, seeds and fruit. 

Being cavity feeders, they will store food in nooks and crannies of trees to save for a sparse day. The tiny birds will wedge food into bark crevices or hold it in place with chickadee saliva (sounds adorable) or spider webs. 

When looking for a nesting site, Boreal Chickadees don’t care what kind of tree they use, as long as the wood is soft and easy to excavate – like a dead and decaying tree – yes, the value of a dead tree (called a crag). Boreal Chickadee will store food on branches where it is visible from below so they can see it when the upper side of the branches are covered with snow. 

Black-capped Chickadees love the cold weather. They fill up on berries and fatty seeds, suet and even fat from animal carcasses. To stay warm, they puff up their feathers and lower their metabolism to a shallow form of hibernation. During winter, they form flocks to defend their territory from neighboring flocks, ensuring enough food to make it through the winter. 

Carolina Chickadee and Black-capped Chickadee are very similar except that the cheek stripe of the Black-capped is whiter. They often interbreed and can sing the song of either species. 

The Gray-headed Chickadee is the only species of Chickadee to be found in both the Old and New World. It lives in the boreal forest from Norway, across northern Europe and Asia into Alaska. Feathers account for 7.2% of its body mass – one of the largest proportions among small birds. 

Female Chestnut-backed Chickadees build their nest with no help from the male. The base is moss with strips of bark woven in. The upper portion is made of animal hair – deer, coyote and most often rabbit. They also use horses, cattle, cats or skunks. At the top, the female creates a hair blanket to cover her eggs. 

The Mexican Chickadee‘s song is very different from other chickadees and, although it is throughout the western mountains of Mexico, it is found just over the border high in just 2 mountain ranges. 

The Mountain Chickadee has a white stripe above the eye (or eyebrows) that sets it apart from most others. To protect its nest, it mimics a snake – living its head and bringing it down rapidly, as if to strike, while making a hiss sound and slapping its wings against the inside wall of the nest cavity. 

On a side note – there is a wonderful article in the Winter 2023 volume of Living Bird on the cognitive abilities research of the Mountain Chickadee. 

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