One of my favorite birds is the chickadee. The Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) is the one we usually see around the Washington, DC, area.
The nearly identical black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) usually lives farther north, though the species overlap a bit in central and south Pennsylvania. The black caps are known to venture farther south during irruption years, when there is severe cold weather or food shortages.
The energy and resourcefulness of chickadees, along with biological adaptations, allow them to live in our yards year-round. In winter, when most other insect-eating birds migrate, they augment their diet with seeds. People who feed birds are likely to find chickadees, which are particularly fond of black oil sunflower seeds, to be among their best customers.
Feeders are a benefit when temperatures dip below 10 F. Chickadees need 20 times more food in winter than summer to maintain their metabolisms, so extra seed or suet can be a lifesaver. Finding 60% (the equivalent of 250 sunflower seeds) of their body weight each day is not easy. As if planning ahead, they cache food away under loose bark or other nooks and crannies.
Chickadees have several ways of conserving energy. They fluff their feathers and grow up to 30% more feathers in winter to trap body-warmed air. They can also enter torpor, reducing their body temperatures by as much as 20 degrees on winter nights to conserve fat reserves.
Chickadees are curious and often take risks. Birders know that a chickadee is often the first to respond to the “pishing” call birders use to lure birds into the open. They often lead mixed flocks of birds in mobbing screech owls and other predators as well.
Their calls can be used to warn each other or even other animals of danger. Tom Starr, a notable figure in Cherokee history, claimed to have had his life saved when he heard a tsikilili (chickadee) give its warning call. He realized he was being followed and escaped to safety. To the Cherokee, a tsikilili is considered a “bringer of news.” I’m inclined to believe Starr’s story. I’ve often heard chickadees raising a ruckus and investigated. Usually it was just a cat, but sometimes it was a snake, screech owl or something even more interesting.
Once when I was testing my skills calling turkeys at a park where I worked, the gobblers I was “talking” to suddenly went quiet. I thought I had hit a sour note but then heard something approaching. It was a red fox, apparently looking for a turkey dinner.
Several chickadees had heralded his arrival, and their calls may have saved a turkey’s life. The chickadees got within a foot or so of the fox (and the fox got within 5 feet of me before I stood up and gave it a good scare), relying on their quickness to escape. With that much commotion and pestering, it would have been hard to sneak up on anything.
It’s easy to get chickadees to nest in your yard. They will use a bird box (or existing cavity), with an entrance hole of about 1.125 inches. If possible, put the box up in February — they may roost in it on winter nights — preferably in an evergreen tree 6–12 feet high.
To increase the odds of getting them to accept your housing gift, place some leaves inside. Chickadees often use “house cleaning” as a pair bonding ritual.
If they do nest, don’t disturb them. If you do, prepare for a surprise: Females can produce a snakelike hiss. More important, though, you can cause harm by stressing them. Plus, it’s illegal to bother nesting wildlife.
Chickadees lay five to eight white eggs with reddish spots in a cavity nest lined with moss. It often includes grass, feathers and hair. I’ve heard stories of these birds plucking hair from live animals, such as dogs, but have only witnessed one pulling hair off a dead fox. It takes 11–12 days for the eggs to hatch, then another 13–17 days for the nestlings to fledge. Two broods per season is rare but not unheard of.
Carolina chickadee parents feed their young almost exclusively on insects. Caterpillars are their favorite. It takes about 9,000 caterpillars to raise one brood. Studies have shown that when insects aren’t available, the young can die if fed only seed. This is why chickadees prefer to nest near native trees (and, in turn, native insects) as opposed to yards with nonnative plants. Their reproductive success is at stake.
Some people have tamed chickadees to the point of feeding them by hand. I did this once. It was amusing to watch them chisel open seeds or try to wrestle them from my fingers when I refused to let go. Even if your chickadees aren’t quite so bold, these little dynamos are fun to watch all year long — whether pestering a predator, stealing a tuft of hair from a dog or making use of a bird house.
Chickadees can live up to 12 years, although wild ones have shorter lifespans. They are easy to attract, so be a good neighbor and really get to know the Carolina chickadee.
Alonso Abugattas, a storyteller and blogger known as the Capital Naturalist (capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com), is the natural resources manager for Parks and Recreation in Arlington County, VA. He filled in during May for regular On the Wing columnist Mike Burke.
This article perpetuates the myth that chickadees easily nest in suburbia, which isn't accurate. They can only nest successfully in suburbia if enough large native trees exist in the neighborhood to provide caterpillars to feed the chicks when they are very young (chicks are also fed other kinds of insects when they are older).
The assumption that chickadees can nest anywhere in suburbia is what invalidates the well known but incorrect Doug Tallamy chickadee study published several years ago. He used chickadees to supposedly show that native birds require native plants, but it was a sham.
Chickadees are birds of the forest (obviously, by way of their need for cavities to nest in), which automatically should have told the researchers a chickadee is dependent upon native trees (the definition of "forest"). Thus, the choice of a chickadee as the study bird was inappropriate because the results would be a foregone conclusion.
And then its broad generalization to all kinds of birds was erroneous: A great variety of yard-nesting birds, such as cardinals, catbirds, thrashers, etc., can nest quite well in yards filled with nonnative woody plants. You can read about this "Chickadee Chicanery" at https://indefenseofnature.blogspot.com/2020/10/a-carolina-chickadeegrasps-tulip-poplar.html
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