Bird of the Week #1: Black-Capped Chickadee

For the very first Bird of the Week, I am starting with my very favorite visitor to my feeder: the Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).

I love chickadees because they are so full of personality. There are several different species of chickadee all over North America, but the ones who visit my feeder are black-capped chickadees. Depending on where you live, you might see its cousin the Carolina chickadee, the mountain chickadee, or several other varieties. But mine are of the black-capped variety.

Chickadees eat mostly insects during the summer, but during the colder months will prefer seeds or fruit. Though chickadees do not migrate, you’re more likely to see them at your feeders during winter. Since they are permanent residents, you’ll still see them year-round though.

When chickadees visit my feeders, they usually take their orders to go. Rather than sit at the feeders and eat, chickadees will pick out their favorite see and carry it off to a nearby branch to cache it for later. Chickadees have excellent memories and can reportedly remember where they’ve hidden food for as long as 28 days.

The chickadee was named after its distinctive “chickadee-dee-dee” call, which is actually its alarm call. Chickadees will make the “chicka-dee-dee” call in order to warn others that a predator or other danger is nearby. Most interesting about the call is that the number of “dees” added to and intensity of the call will change depending on what sort they are warning about. A more serious predator will have a more intense call with lots of “dees,” while a less threatening entity will trigger something quicker and softer. A song with twenty-three total “dees” was recorded by a chickadee warning of a nearby pygmy owl, a major chickadee predator.

The other chickadee call is their actual song, called the fee-bee which sounds like they’re either saying “hey sweetie” or “cheeseburger.” Black-capped chickadees sing a two note version, where their close relative, the Carolina chickadee will sing a four-note version. These two chickadees look so similar that their songs are sometimes the only way to distinguish them. They’re actually so alike that even the birds themselves have trouble telling each other apart and will occasionally interbreed, producing a hybrid that sings a three-note song.

I find the chickadees difficult to photograph because they are constantly in motion. Even when just standing there, chickadees are always moving their heads around searching for predators or food. They’re quick, smart, and active little fellas.

A group of chickadees is called a banditry, so named because their black “caps” make them look like little bandits.

I have at least two that frequent my feeders. They seem to mostly prefer to grab safflower seeds from my tray feeder, but I’ve also seen them grabbing sunflower seeds and occasionally meal worms when I put them out. They get along well with other birds, causing no issues as they come to grab their food.

Chickadees live in cavity nests and will use box nests, if provided. Chickadees will also use old woodpecker nests or other holes in trees. They are not super picky, though starlings taking over their nests can be a problem. One way to keep starlings out is to ensure the entrance diameter is less than 1.5 inches.

Attracting chickadees is simple. They’ll eat just about any seed, especially during the winter. They are natural foragers, so just having the seed out should do the trick. There’s no guarantee that one will find your feeder, but when they do, they are adorable and fun birds to watch. Though I haven’t any luck, some people are able to feed chickadees by hand.

Tell me about the chickadees at your feeders! Do you have anything to add? Any more fun facts?

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