A Cheer for Chickadees

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

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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.

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.

Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents of Alaska, Canada, and the northern and central United States as far south as New Mexico. They can be found in a variety of habitats, from forests and woodlots to weedy fields, riparian thickets, residential neighborhoods, and parks. Depending on the availability of food and nesting sites, there’s some seasonal migration within their sweeping range.

Very similar to its black-capped cousin, the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) occupies the southeastern states. Where their ranges overlap, they learn and imitate each other’s songs, and interbreed.

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) flying, Georgia, USA.

Other North American chickadee species include boreal chickadees (Poecile hudsonicus), which occupy Canada, Alaska, and parts of the far-northern continental U.S.; chestnut-backed chickadees (Poecile rufescens), which can be found along the western coast of North America; mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli) of the mountainous West; Mexican chickadees (Poecile sclateri), found in parts of Arizona and New Mexico; and gray-headed chickadees (Poecile cinctus) of northern Alaska and Canada.

boreal chickadee in winter Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens) perched on a dead Mountain Chickadee Poecile gambeli Siberian tit

The Many Voices of the Chickadee

Highly social, chickadees use a variety of call notes to communicate with other birds in the area, as well as send out predator alarms and contact calls. In his book A Guide To Bird Behavior, ornithologist Donald Stokes says you can tell what a chickadee is doing by listening to its chatter. In late summer and fall, when the winter flocks begin to form and roam about their territories, chickadees use the high-pitched “seet” call to warn of a fast-approaching predator, such as a pygmy owl. This signals the flock to freeze in place until the “all-clear” call is sounded. The chickadees’ other most commonly used call is a buzzy “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” which has many variations depending on the species and situation. Forms of this call can be an alarm call, but may also serve to reunite the flock after a disturbance, maintain contact with the flock, scold an intruder, or announce a new food source.

As winter flocks begin to break up and breeding males define their territories, male chickadees start to sing their clear, whistled “fee-bee” song. Though few may realize the chickadee capable of such a serenade to his lady love, the singer is as completely absorbed in his work as any songster. Aside from their sweet song, courtship is not a big affair for chickadees. There’s no flaunting of the male’s bright-red epaulet as with the red-winged blackbird, no dramatic aerial somersault as with the mockingbird, and no “sky dancing” ritual as with the woodcock. Chickadee courtship is limited to one or more males pursuing a female, with some bill touching and mate feeding.

Nesting Habits

True to the axiom about bird coloration and sex roles (“same colors, same roles; different colors, different roles”), the nearly identical male and female birds share in raising their young. In Life Histories of North American Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent cites an observer who described the male chickadee as a “devoted father, assisting his mate in all the tasks of homebuilding, incubation, and rearing of their offspring, and the birds exhibit a tender affection and constant solicitation for the care of their young.” That’s a solid description of what scientists refer to as “social monogamy.”

Chickadees nest in a hole in a dead or dying tree, which the pair chisels out together, or they use an existing natural cavity or abandoned woodpecker nest. They’ll also occasionally use nest boxes. The female selects the site and builds the nest. Nesting season runs from late April through early July. They usually breed only once a year, but second broods are possible if the first one is lost to predators, bad weather, or human disturbance.

Winter Survival

In winter, chickadees band together to form foraging flocks. Small birds maintain a delicate balance every day in winter: They have to eat enough to get through the night without freezing to death, but time spent foraging increases the risk of exposure to predators. Banding together helps the entire flock survive. The more eyes to watch for predators, the better. Often, other species choose to tag along with a chic­kadee flock as well, including tit­mice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, creepers, juncos, and kinglets. Chickadees are the food-finders and often the first to spot a predator and send out an alert. They’re the “glue” that holds together these roving fall and winter flocks.

Weighing in at a mere 1⁄2 ounce or less, how chickadees survive the hardship of winter is part scientific miracle and part sheer pluck. To make up for the rapid loss of heat from its small body when temperatures plunge, this metabolic fireball’s heart beats around 500 times per minute at rest and doubles during times of intense activity. This means in winter, they have to eat as much as they can during the day, because they burn it up at night staying warm.

In northern regions, chickadees puff out their plumage, trapping air around their down feathers, which increases insulation and prevents heat loss. In severe cold, they can generate additional heat by shivering, but this is only a temporary measure, because it uses energy at a time when it can least be afforded. On dangerously cold nights, when temperatures drop and food reserves are low, chickadees have one final trick up their sleeve: They enter a state of torpor, where bodily functions, including breathing and metabolism, are slowed and body temperature is lowered to decrease the need for food reserves.

Finding the food needed to produce energy in winter is a big issue for birds. To survive, chickadees rely on known, patchily distributed food locations, while constantly on the lookout for new sources. They rarely eat food where they find it; instead, they snatch a seed and fly off to a tree, where they proceed to hammer the seed on a branch to open it. Most chickadee species are also known to store food. Favorite winter feeder foods include sunflower seeds, suet, peanuts, and peanut butter mixed with cornmeal or flour.

Predation is a constant problem for birds, especially in winter, and each chickadee flock has one or more sentinels with the important job of watching for danger. One morning I heard the alarm call of a chickadee, a shrill “seet” call that sent its companions diving into the bushes. Scanning the trees, I saw the cause for the alarm, a sharp-shinned hawk — a fierce predator of songbirds. Hawks rely on catching their victims off guard, but this time, the chickadee’s early warning denied the hawk the element of surprise.

A Bird with Few Rivals

I’ve often wondered if I’m seeing the same chickadees at my feeder over and over throughout the day, or if different individuals wander in and out of the area. In a study conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, participants tracked color-banded chickadees showing up at feeders during a weekly one-hour watch in Ithaca, New York. Astonishingly, at one feeder, 30 different chickadees showed up, along with four unbanded individuals. If this is any indication of winter feeder activity elsewhere, I suspect I’m seeing many different chickadee visitors at my feeder throughout the day.

It’s hard not to be captivated by chickadees. While they’re not spectacularly colored, and they lack the melodious voice of a warbler or thrush, when it comes to acceptance of humans, intelligence, and interesting behavior, the chickadee has few rivals.

Black-Capped Chickadee on a Branch with Red Berries in Fall

Ubiquitous though they may be, I never tire of watching their antics at the feeder and hearing the uplifting “chick-a-dee-dee” calls of these feathered balls of energy.

Jo Ann Abell lives on a small farm in southwestern Virginia with her husband, three dogs, chickens, and 200,000 honeybees. You can read her article on opossums “The Misunderstood Marsupial at Grit.

Black-Capped Chickadee Facts

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

  • Chickadees hide seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is stashed in a different spot, and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.
  • Chickadees are one of the few birds that have the ability to hang upside-down to pluck insects from tree branches or seeds from pine cones.
  • Every autumn, nerve cells in a chickadee’s brain containing old information are replaced with new cells, helping them adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment.
  • Chickadee calls are complex and are used to communicate information on identity and recognition of other flocks, predator alarms, and contact calls. Studies show that the more “dee” notes in their signature “chick-a-dee” call, the higher the threat level.
  • Most birds that travel with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.
  • Because small songbirds migrating through an unfamiliar area often mingle with chickadee flocks, watching and listening for chickadees during spring and fall can alert bird-watchers to the presence of interesting migrants.