I have to apologize to certain very loyal, feathered friends. I have been writing this column for over ten years. On many occasions, I have written about a single species. This year, for example, I have written about the White-breasted Nuthatch and the Wild Turkey. I have a second column in the pipe on the turkey. I have written multiple columns on the Blue Jay and the Raven. I did a long series one year on the blackbirds of our area.
But I have neglected one of the most dependable and entertaining birds - one that is present at my feeders in the depths of winter and the heat of summer, always dressed up in its plain, black, gray, and white attire.
The early naturalists, like John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, knew this forest bird as the Black-cap Titmouse, a bird very similar to the European Marsh Titmouse, and to which it is closely related. “Titmouse” means “small bird.” Those early naturalists lost the naming game to the common people who knew this bird by its familiar chatter: “chicka, chicka, chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”
This black-capped small bird, the Black-capped Chickadee, is a busy little bird, flying quickly to the feeder, grabbing a sunflower seed, and heading just as quickly to the thick branches of a lilac bush. In the protective branches, it holds the seed with its feet and drills through the hard shell to the tasty meat. Then another quick trip to the feeder and back to the lilac, and again.
In “the most boisterous weather,” Audubon wrote, “it may be seen amidst the snow in the rugged paths of the cheerless woods, where it welcomes the traveller or the woodcutter with a confidence and cheerfulness far surpassing the well-known familiarity of the Robin Redbreast of Europe. Often, on such occasions, should you offer it, no matter how small a portion of your fare, it alights without hesitation, and devours it without manifesting any apprehension.”
The chickadee has a tolerance for human presence. It comes readily to our bird feeders. In my yard it avoids the larger and/or more aggressive birds by coming to the feeder hanging on the house just outside the kitchen window. It is undeterred by my presence on the inside of the window, but it does not stay long. During the breeding season, it will use nest boxes, and will allow the careful observer to inspect the progress of its young in the nest.
The chickadee’s friendly and likeable character may mask some of its natural abilities, and even some of its personality. We may marvel at the energy with which it opens the sunflower seeds we provide. Its beak seems so thin and delicate. But the chickadee is just as capable of opening an acorn or hazelnut and picking apart the nutritious kernel inside the hard shell.
It can take a week to ten days to excavate a suitable nest hole. This is from a small bird which looks delicate, and appears to have a small, delicate beak which is challenged when opening a sunflower see. Beware of appearances.
Let me repeat: beware of appearances. Audubon suggested that the personality of the Black-capped Chickadee sometimes paralleled the personality of the Blue Jay. In Audubon’s day, the Blue Jay had the reputation of being a bully. It still has that reputation. The Blue Jay was, and is, blamed for preying upon the nestlings of other birds. But Audubon also wrote of the chickadee: “Courageous and at times exceedingly tyrannical, it will attack young birds, break their skulls and feed upon their flesh, as I have more than once witnessed. In this habit they resemble the Jays ....”
I’ll have more on the Black-capped Chickadee soon. Good birding!