Saturday, March 06, 2010

Black-capped Chickadee

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.
I have written about the Red-bellied Woodpecker, the Broad-winged Hawk, and the Mallard. The Dark-eyed Junco, abundant in my yard this winter, has received my attention, as had the American Goldfinch which is beginning to show up in large numbers.

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.

The feeders were quiet this morning when I went out to sweep away the night’s snow shower and put seed on the platform. As returned to the house along my beaten snow path, from the thick branches of the white pines I heard “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” Another bird landed on the maple branches over my head. “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” And from the top of an ash tree, yet another “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” As the tiny flock flew in, they were communicating to one another. But I also like to think they were announcing, “Breakfast is served,” and maybe also calling a “thank you.”

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.”

Stand in the winter woods, where every sound has been muffled by snow; it is as though you were in a great sound proof room. Now begin repeating, “pish, pish, pish.” In moments, your “pish, pish, pish” will be answered from a distant “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” repeated over and over and coming closer. The curious forest sentinel comes to investigate. Repeat this exercise in the spring, in the summer, and in the fall. The result will be the same. The chickadee will hurry to investigate your presence.

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.

We may see a chickadee pair take up residence in one of our nest boxes. In my yard, however, they are out-competed for the boxes by the House Wren. What do the poor birds do? Not to worry. They head into the wood, find an old dead tree or snag - birch is a good choice - and make their own nest hole. “Often the Chickadee gains an entrance through the hard outer coating of a post or stump into the decaying interior by choosing, as a vantage point, a hole made by some woodpecker in search of a grub. The chickadee works industriously to deepen and enlarge this cavity, sometimes making a hole nine or more inches deep; and the little bird is wise enough to carry the tell-tale chips away and scatter them far and wide - something the Woodpeckers are less careful about.” (Forbush)

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 ....”

That is the sweet and adorable little bird that we love to have at our bird feeders! To be fair, Bent in his life history does not allude to this “killer instinct” in the chickadee lifestyle and diet. He does site several studies which show that most of its diet is animal matter (as much as 75%, even it the winter). The animal matter is in the form of insects and spiders, or their eggs and larvae. Chickadees also consumer wood borers, leaf beetles, white pine weevil, nut weevils, bark beetles, tree hoppers, spittle insects, cicada, leaf hoppers, sawflies, tent caterpillars - and the list goes on. As frequently as the chickadee may be at our feeders, our bird seed and suet is only a part of their diet. It spends most of its time gleaning insects from the surrounding trees.

I’ll have more on the Black-capped Chickadee soon. Good birding!


Susan Ellis said...

Nice! I have an intrepid flock of about 10 that hang around my yard,take seeds from my hand, and can be counted on to cheer me up in an instant! A very favourite little bird.

Chris said...

Hi Chris,
Beautiful message on this nice little bird. A lot of nice information there and beautiful pictures!

The Zen Birdfeeder said...

The chickadee, being the friendly bird that it is, will pay you back many times over for your nice tribute!

Unknown said...

I learn more from you than from anyone! Can't wait for the next installment.

Kelly said...

...loved the post--you put so much work into it.

Mary said...

I love this post on the of my favorite birds. Especially liked learning about its nesting habits in the wild. I was fortunate to have a family in a gourd birdhouse last year and really enjoyed watching them. I put up two new gourds this year..hoping! A family of House wrens used it after the chickadee last year and loaded it with so many sticks, I could barely get them all back out.


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