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Nature’s Ways: Black-Capped Chickadee — a Year-Round Feeder Visitor

Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-deedee-dee” — the tiny black-capped chickadee punctuates the crisp winter air with its cheery call. Although cardinals often grace Christmas cards, the chickadee is a close second in that department.

Almost everyone likes this friendly bird that visits our feeders for a handout of sunflower seeds.

Unless you live in the extreme southwest or southeastern parts of the state, the black-capped chickadee is a common winter bird and a regular visitor to bird feeders.

In Pennsylvania’s southern corners, and now across the southern tier counties, the black-capped is being replaced by the very similar, but normally more southerly, Carolina chickadee.

Volunteers assisting with the first Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania (1983-1989) found the black-cap in 84 percent of the state and the Carolina in 14 percent.

By 2009, Carolina chickadees had increased their range by over 55 percent. According to Robert Curry, in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, Carolina chickadees are moving northward at approximately .6 miles per year.

Carolina chickadees have not yet colonized Centre County or the higher elevations in Pennsylvania, but they occur in over 20 counties.

These migrants are already in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and almost to Altoona. If their expansion continues at the current rate, you could expect to see Carolina chickadees cross-breeding with and replacing black-capped chickadees in Centre County within 20 years.

The chickadee is a daily visitor to my feeding stations. Each winter, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s official feeder watchers in their Allegheny Region (NY and PA) report the black-capped/Carolina chickadee as a visitor at well over 90 percent of their feeders.

The black-capped chickadee’s range extends across most of the northern United States, including Alaska and much of Canada. Two states — Maine and Massachusetts — have honored the chickadee by making it their official state bird.

The chickadee measures only about five inches long and could easily hide, but hiding is not in its personality. They are not shy birds.

“Black-capped” is a very accurate description of the bird. The top of the chickadee’s small, domed head is covered in black and it sports another large, black chin patch. Chickadees’ cheeks and breast are white, accented with a little rust on their flanks, while their backs and wings are gray.

They also have short, slender black bills.

Both sexes wear the same plumage.

Other small, black, white and gray birds that visit my feeders include white-breasted nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos and tufted titmice.

However, it is easy to distinguish the chickadee from each of these.

The nuthatch has a long bill and often lands on the side of trees facing downward. The junco is slate gray with no black at all. The titmouse has very little black and is adorned with a crest at the top of its head.

Aside from the Carolina chickadee, the tufted titmouse is the closest Pennsylvania relative to the black-capped chickadee.

Both birds are in the same family.

The famous ornithologist John James Audubon often referred to the chickadee as the black-capped titmouse. Even a casual observer can see that the behavior of both birds is similar.

Researcher Susan Smith found that, during the winter, chickadees congregate in feeding flocks of six to 14 paired birds. Other less-dominant birds, which she called “floaters,” do not flock.

Only when a dominant member of the feeding flock dies does a floater have a chance to enter the established feeding flock.

These winter groups range over 20 acres or more.

When spring approaches, the most dominant pairs of chickadees establish prime breeding territories of three to 10 acres. Others do not breed. Their call becomes a territorial “Here, Petey,” which is repeated over and over. Chickadees pair for life, although some birds are promiscuous.

During May or June, both the male and female help to excavate a cavity nest in a dead tree. Birch or aspen seem to be favorites because their decayed wood can easily be chipped away. Seldom is the nest site located more than 10 feet high and may be very close to the ground.

One June, I watched a pair setting up house in a dead aspen. One by one, the birds would enter the small opening and, moments later, emerge and spit out a tiny beakfull of sawdust that would fall 10 feet to the ground.

On another occasion, I traced a chickadee to a nest cavity about six feet high in a sumac tree. Since the tree was only three-and-a-half inches in diameter, I could not imagine that there was enough room inside for their clutch of five to nine reddish-spotted eggs.

According to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, chickadees incubate their eggs for 11 to 13 days, and the young fledge their nest 14 to 18 days after hatching. Parents continue to provide care and protection for about another four weeks. Only one brood is raised per year.

Most of a chickadee’s diet is insects and spiders, but during the winter, they rely more heavily on seeds. Ragweed, goldenrod and sumac seeds are prime entrees on their menu. At bird feeders, they prefer oil sunflower seeds, although they will also eat suet.

Since black-capped chickadees are found all the way north to Alaska, one would guess that they have special winter survival techniques. Like most birds, they fluff their feathers and face into the wind when Mother Nature dishes out her harshest weather.

On the worst nights, while roosting in a cavity or dense evergreen, a chickadee will tuck its head under a wing and enter a state of regulated hypothermia. This is reached by slowing the blood flow to its exterior and extremities and lowering its body temperature from 105 to 50 degrees. Even with that ability, most of its fat reserves can be depleted in one cold night. It is no wonder that chickadees spend so much time flitting in and out from my feeders.

I really enjoy watching chickadees interacting at the feeder. They can be so unafraid of humans that I have even had one land on my hat and another eat out of my hand.

For myself and many other nature lovers, the chickadee is as much a part of winter as snow. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I do.