This weeks column will discuss one of my favorite birds, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and it’s family, the Paridae. Paridae and Parus are Latin for Titmouse and atricapillus is Latin for “Black-capped“, formed from atris – “black” and capillus – “hair of the head”. Worldwide there are 55 members of the Paridae family that include Chickadees, Titmice and Tits. In North America there are 7 species of Chickadees (excluding the Titmice and Tits). They are: Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Chickadee (P. carolinensis), Boreal Chickadee (P. hudsonicus), Chestnut-backed Chickadee (P. rufescens), Mountain Chickadee (P. gambeli), Mexican Chickadee (P. sclateri) and the Gray-headed Chickadee (P. cinctus) which was formally known as the Siberian Tit. The word Chickadee derives from the sound that they make.
Male, female and immature Black-capped Chickadees all have similar plumage.
They are busy little birds that have dark caps and throats with white on their cheeks and a variable amount of buff on their flanks. Their backs olive-gray. Chickadees range from 4.75 inches in length in the Carolina Chickadee to 5.5 inches long in the Boreal Chickadee. The Black-capped Chickadee (which from here out I will abbreviate as BCC) is generally 5.25 inches in length. Over most of their widespread range the BCC inhabits a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. They are found at forest edges and deep in the woods. They are also common in suburban areas at feeders, field edges, parks and anywhere there is cover. In the Appalachian and northern part of their range they prefer conifers. BCC’s are generally lowland birds, but in the southeastern part of its range where the Carolina Chickadee is prevalent they are found above 1,800 feet in winter and 3,600 feet in summer where they replace the lower altitude Carolina Chickadee.
In the area where the ranges of the Carolina Chickadee and BCC overlap they do interbreed, but it is thought uncommonly.
Differentiating the Carolina Chickadee and the BCC are often done by ear, but this is not always reliable as they can learn each other’s songs. More reliable differences are in plumage. The BCC is has sharper, more contrasting colors than it’s drabber cousin. The cheek patch is bright white in the BCC and is grayish at the back of the Carolina Chickadee. The bib of the Carolina Chickadee is more neatly delineated, whereas the BCC’s bib looks ragged. Their voices are different. The BCC’s “chikadee dee dee” call is slower and deeper than the Carolina’s. In addition to the above call, BCC’s also have the common “fee beee” or “fee bey ee” calls. These are more commonly heard in the spring. BCC’s also have many different vocalizations that have been found surprisingly similar to language. In the fall the BCC’s adds neurons to the hippocampus, which is the portion of the brain responsible for memories and spatial learning. It is thought that this extra brainpower increases their ability to locate caches of food. They have sophisticated spatial orientation that allows them to recover cached food that was stored up to 28 days in the past. Other vocalizations include a “gargling”, an alarm “teeteeteeteetee”, and a sharp “hiss” when on their nest.
Chickadees have specialized leg muscles that allow them to hang upside down and glean food from trees and foliage. Their diet consists of insects and spiders and their eggs, caterpillars, snails, seeds and berries. They enjoy suet and have been known to eat fat from carrion. They will also hover to feed or hawk insects. BCC’s usually don’t fly more than 15 meters at a time. Flight speed is up to 20 meters/hour.
Chickadees are usually monogamous, although many Chickadees die in winter. The average lifespan is 2.5 years. The record for the oldest known BCC is 12.5 years. They are territorial in the breeding season and form flocks of up to 12 in the winter with adult pairs and immature birds. When in flocks you can definitely observe dominance hierarchies. Many other species loosely associate themselves with these winter flocks. It is thought that the complex communication of Chickadees helps them find food and avoid danger. This could be why other birds stay nearby. When you discover a flock of winter Chickadees be on the lookout for nuthatches, creepers, and woodpeckers.
Chickadees also demonstrate mobbing behavior. When there is a perceived treat, they often flock toward it to badger the intruder. Who was it that said, “Keep you friends close and your enemies closer.”? He may have learned this from Chickadees. (I think this quote was attributed to Sun Tzu??? (www.kimsoft.com/polwar.htm).
BCC’s are cavity nesters and often excavate their own holes that may take 10-12 days. Both male and female usually excavate a rotten birch stump 5-15 feet off the ground. They also will nest in boxes, natural cavities and old woodpecker holes. The female lines her nest with moss, plant down, and hair and cover their eggs up when they leave their nest. The female incubates the eggs and both parents provide food. Egg laying can begin anytime between April and early July and usually occurs within two days of nest completion. The female will lay about 6 eggs – one per day. The eggs are dull, small and pinkish white with flecks of brown or purplish red. Incubation is 12-13 days. At 16 days they fledge the nest but are usually fed by the parents for another 2-4 weeks. They usually only have one brood a year, but they will attempt a second brood if the first attempt fails.
There is no formal migration, but in winter flocks can be nomadic and irruptions south do occur, especially the first year birds. My faithful year round friend has given me many hours of fun. I can never resist a flock of BCC’s in the winter. I have to stop and listen and see what other birds are traveling with them. I’ve been surprised to find birds like Pine Siskins (Cardulis pinus), White-winged Crossbills(Loxia leucoptera), and Yellow-rumped Warblers(Dendroica coronata) with them. I even have been lucky enough to have one land on me. They visit our black oil sunflower seeds and suet feeder often. I guess they remind me of my home since the BCC is the state bird of Maine (also Massachusetts).
In my next article I’ll talk about what to be looking for in February. Until then, keep an eye on what’s out and about.
p.s. Here is a list of the world’s Paridae:
Pere David's Tit