Tiny black-capped chickadee has big personality
To watch the antics of a black-capped chickadee is to witness a diminutive bird with the spirit and determination of a much larger animal. A frequent visitor to winter bird feeders, this tiny bird with beautiful black and white plumage is a favorite of many people. It’s so popular it is the official state bird of both Maine and Massachusetts and is pictured on Maine license plates.
I think what makes them so well-liked is not just their cuteness and feisty manner, but their inquisitive nature. They are also relatively tame compared to other wild birds. When they are busy at a feeder, if you move slowly and patiently you can get within a few feet of them. They are even known to take seed directly from outstretched human hands.
Here are some interesting facts about the black-capped chickadee taken from All About Birds, “Stokes Nature Guides to Bird Behavior, Volume 1” and “Connecticut Wildlife Magazine,” November/December 2006.
The chickadee’s coloring is a distinctive black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray in its back, wings, and tail with a whitish underside and buffy sides.
Chickadees may be found in any habitat with trees or woody shrubs, from forests and woodlots to residential neighborhoods and parks, and sometimes weedy fields and cattail marshes. They frequently nest in birch or alder trees.
Chickadees love a bird feeder for suet, sunflowers and peanuts. They are happy to use tiny feeders that swing in the wind and will visit a window feeder. This adaptability and acceptance of living in close proximity to humans make the chickadee one of the first birds people are able to identify. But don’t expect the chickadee to hang around the feeder. They are more likely to grab a seed and fly off to eat it or hide it somewhere else.
Mated pairs of chickadees and nonbreeders will flock together, often any offspring of the adult pairs have found a different flock. Chickadees often congregate with other birds, such as nuthatches, woodpeckers and kinglets. The chickadees are the nucleus of an avian community that benefits from locating shared food sources and the combined ability to watch for predators, such as the sharp-shinned hawk. The arrival of flocks is usually quite noticeable.
The flight of a chickadee is distinctive as well. They often “bounce” across the air over roads and open areas one at a time.
Chickadees have a complex system of calls and body postures that the other birds in the flock take notice of. For example, the chickadees’ “chickadee-dee-dee” call is a predator alarm, with the more dee notes signifying a higher threat level. Chickadee calls can communicate a range of information to those who understand them. One of their most recognizable calls is the clear two-note phrase “fee-bee, fee-bee” song. The first note is typically a whole tone higher than the second and often answered by another bird. This call is heard in late winter as the winter flocks are breaking up and the breeding males start to define territories. The calls become more prominent if two or more males are giving it at the same time, seeming to answer each other.
Winter flocks begin to break up when breeding males start to define their territory. Nest building in the cavity of a partially rotted tree begins in April with breeding beginning in early May. Their nest is four to 15 feet from the ground, with the nest hole about an inch in diameter. Up to six eggs are laid in a nest made of fine fibers with incubation by the female lasting 12 days. The nesting phase is 16 days with fledgling phase one to two weeks. Chickadees have up to two broods per year.
Both male and female chickadees are 4.7 to 5.9 inches long and weigh 0.3 to 0.5 ounces with a wingspan of 6.3 to 8.3 inches.
In the fall, chickadees, along with other winter birds such tufted titmice, grow up to 30 percent more body feathers than their summer plumage accounting for the bulky appearance of the tiny bird as it traps in body heat to aid winter survival.
Chickadees cannot store enough fat to hold a normal body temperature through bitter cold winter nights like several we have had in recent weeks. To compensate they go into a state of torpor, or short-term hibernation, where the body functions slow down to conserve energy. Their heartbeat and breathing rates reduce and body temperature falls by 10–20 degrees.
One of my most interesting encounters with the black-capped chickadee happened in 1972 with my good friend and enthusiastic “birder” Brian Fitzpatrick. We had climbed about 40 feet into a tall white pine tree near his house and sat on large horizontal branches with one arm hugging the massive trunk. Brian was an excellent whistler and could perfectly mimic the “fee bee” call of the chickadee with the higher first note followed by a lower second note. Sure enough, a chickadee heard his whistle and responded with its own. Brian and the bird repeated this process for a minute or two until the chickadee finally landed on the branch right in front of him. Seeing it had been fooled by the silly teenage human, it flew off.
As winter begins its slow descent into spring, listen for the “fee bee” call of our region’s indomitable chickadee. If you practice hard and can hit that first high note, you may be able to call in the little bird enjoyed by so many.
We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy and pass it on to the next generation.
Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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