A Cheer for Chickadees

Curious and friendly, chickadees charm backyard birdwatchers and provide pest control to farms and gardens.

Photo by Adobe Stock/FotoRequest

One of the most endearing of our year-round birds in southwestern Virginia is the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). With its oversized, round head; fluffy body; and curiosity about everything, including humans, this member of the titmouse family (Paridae) could be the poster bird for cuteness. The tiny bird’s black cap and bib; white cheeks; gray back, wings, and tail; and light, buff underparts make it one of our most recognizable birds. Flying from tree to tree in search of food, they make their presence known with a flurry of activity and cheery calls.

Despite their diminutive size, black-capped chickadees don’t fear humans. In fact, the onomatopoeically named birds seem to introduce themselves by calling their name — “chick-a-dee.” This species’ habit of investigating everything in its home territory makes it one of the first birds most people notice. Once the sentinels spot you, they send out their “chick-a-dee-dee” alarm call to alert other nearby birds that an intruder is in the area. When things settle down a bit, the caller may decide to come in for a closer look. Many times while I walk in the woods, a curious chickadee will fo­llow me, hopping from one tree to another, all the while providing a steady, chattering monologue.

In addition to their friendly nature, chickadees also provide pest control. The chickadee diet consists of seeds, wild fruits, caterpillars, butterfly and moth eggs, spiders, beetles, bugs, and ants. They pry under bark and inspect every cranny of a tree, dining on the adults and eggs of agricultural pests, including weevils, cicadas, wood borers, treehoppers, leafhoppers, tent caterpillars, and sawflies­ — making the chickadee a friend to farmers and gardeners.

Boreal chickadees (top) have a distinguishable brown cap. Mountain chickadees (middle) can be identified by their white eyebrow stripe. Carolina chickadees (bottom) are similar in appearance to black-capped chickadees, and often identified primarily by location. From top to bottom, photos by Adobe Stock/Ivan Kuzmin, Adobe Stock/Mircea Costina, Adobe Stock/Tom, respectively. 

Chickadees of North America

Black-capped chickadees are one of seven different species of chickadees in North America. These seven species nearly cover the proverbial map, so chances are you have chickadees in your area. All chickadees are small (4 to 6 inches), nimble flyers, with black throats and dark caps. Adults and juveniles of both sexes are similar in plumage, with short bills, large heads, and a fluffy, rounded body.

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