Chickadees are bouncy, energetic little birds that dart rather nervously from branch-to-branch. This somewhat erratic-looking behavior is perfectly normal for a tiny bird that is viewed as a delicacy for a number of predators, including hawks and owls.
The Black-capped chickadee is the most common and the most plentiful of the seven species. They are non-migratory and spend the entire year from New England to points on the West Coast. Their western range takes them all the way to New Mexico and, in the eastern portion of the country, they’re seen from the Appalachian Mountains south to Georgia.
Neither Canada nor Alaska are left out of the loop since the perky little birds also spend time in the lands of shorter summers.
Physical Appearance of Chickadees
It comes as no surprise that Black-capped chickadees are so-called because of the “cap” of black feathers they wear from the top of their rounded heads to below their eyes. Their puffy little cheeks, as well as their chests, are white. The gray feathers on their wings are bound into place by their white chests and the narrow white line detailing the wings.
They are described by some as a sphere, an impression formed by their short necks and large heads – especially for such a small bird.
The Black-capped chickadee’s bill is short and thick while, by contrast, its tail is long and narrow. The tail is in almost constant action as the birds hop from limb to limb in the evergreen/deciduous forests they prefer. They are especially fond of hanging around the edges of such woods. They are also partial to willows and cottonwoods, and they seek out alder and birch trees for their nests.
These little guys are fragile-looking at only four to six inches long with a six to eight-inch wingspan. Despite their tender appearance, they are hardy and are equipped with some special capabilities to care for themselves.
Male and female chickadees look alike, with a few minor variances.
Seven Species of Chickadees
- Black-Capped Chickadee
- Boreal Chickadee
- Carolina Chickadee
- Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
- Gray-Headed Chickadee
- Mexican Chickadee
- Mountain Chickadee
Identifying the Seven Species
The Black-capped has already been discussed.
People who do not live in the northern most reaches of Michigan, Washington, Idaho, Montana or northern Canada will probably never see a Boreal chickadee.
The Boreal’s cap is brown with pink overtones, fading to gray. Like the Black-cap, they have white cheeks that become gray as the color reaches behind the eyes. The undercarriage is olive gray. The tail is gray with a white fringe.
The Carolina chickadee lives in the southern part of the country, with its preferred locations in woods or along the banks of streams. Like its relatives, the Carolina has a sooty-looking black cap that slides down its back, making its white cheeks look even whiter.
The Chestnut-Backed chickadee generally limits its habitat to the Pacific Northwest. Their white faces are capped by a dark brown crown. Their name comes from the chestnut dots on the underpart of the body.
The belly is white, but the flanks are a distinct chestnut color, a combination giving the diminutive bird a striking appearance.
The Gray-Headed chickadee is extremely rare (the rarest of the seven species) and most people would need an expensive airline ticket to land in Alaska’s remote Arctic Circle where they live. The species is so inaccessible that even experienced ornithologists know very little about them.
About the only information they can offer is that the bird spends most of its time flitting through stunted balsam poplars and spruces. It sings its own version of the typical chickadee song. That should come as no surprise since its extreme isolation means it has probably never heard the song sung properly!
Sighting the Mexican chickadee requires another airline ticket. There are only two places to see the Mexican version of the chickadee – in the Chiricahua Mountains’ pine forests of Arizona and the Animas Mountains in New Mexico. The bird sports an expansive black bib and has a husky, raspy voice.
The Mountain chickadee completes the list. Spotting one requires a hike since they’re seldom found below 3,000 feet. That makes it easy to understand the name.
The sooty shades mentioned in the Carolina chickadee’s description pop up again in the Mountain version. The soot is dusted liberally over its head and down around its eyes. Its underparts are a grayish brown.
All of the more common chickadees have black caps but only the Black-Capped Chickadee uses the distinction in its name.
So, what do Chickadees Eat?
Chickadees are omnivorous and not especially picky eaters. They’re attracted to a buffet of seeds, berries, insects, invertebrates (animals without a backbone, such as a mollusk or a spider) and, from time to time, they will even dine on small pieces of carrion (dead animals).
During the summer months, chickadees are not bashful about gobbling every unsuspecting caterpillar they find. As a matter of fact, the worm-like creatures are the main ingredient in their summer menu.
The chickadees can be quite acrobatic in their dining habits. They may hop along branches or they may even latch onto a limb and hang upside down, opening their beaks to snag insects as they fly past. They also fly short distances to capture insects in mid-air. They are quite adept at taking care of themselves when it comes to food.
A chickadee needs enough food to equal approximately one-third of its body weight. Every day.
New: Check out my review of the best squirrel-proof bird feeders.
Chickadees are some of the easiest birds to attract to backyards.
For one thing, they’re not bashful. For another thing, they’re curious.
Food, water, shelter and a few convenient places to nest are about all they require.
The food part of that list is very similar to what they eat in the wild. Such items as caterpillars and insects are about as readily available in a residential yard as they are in the woods. Trees with flowers and/or berries will attract even more insects
Feeders can offer a combination of black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds (sunflower hearts), shelled peanuts, safflower, almonds, pecans, mealworms, suet and peanut butter are all chickadee favorites. Dabbing peanut butter and/or suet onto a tree trunk or wooden post creates some very interesting backyard bird-watching! And, of course, sunflowers are easy to grow in a sunny garden. The little birds happily dig their tiny talons into the flower’s head and feast.
Greenery and “Props”
Chickadees are comfortable around trees as well as thick shrubbery. They use such areas for foraging as well as for sheltering.
Individual feeders need their own perches, so the chickadee can grab a seed or nut and then dart away to a safe spot to eat. Remember, they’re skittish and they always want easy access to a hiding spot. This is where the shrubbery comes in handy.
It’s a good idea to have multiple feeders. Chickadees like to eat in groups and multiple feeders attract more birds.
Remember, these energetic little guys may be skittish but that doesn’t lessen their curiosity or make them bashful. It’s not uncommon for regular visitors to perch on human fingers and eat from an outstretched palm. They have fun-loving personalities and provide hours of enjoyment.
Like food, water is easily provided by shallow birdbaths. The word “shallow,” however, is important. These are small birds. Add a smaller, shallow container if the bath is too deep. It’s also imperative to have the birdbaths heated in winter.
Some form of grit must also be provided.
Shelter and Nesting
Shelter is where the earlier mentioned trees and shrubs come in handy. As for nesting, chickadees are delighted to move into small birdhouses.
The Art of Caching
Chickadees have feeding patterns, usually grabbing a seed or a nut from a feeder and then darting away with it. Back and forth.
Are they eating the seed while out of sight?
They are, a great deal of the time, caching or saving it for later. It’s actually a very smart practice, like stocking a freezer or a pantry for leaner times when food may be scarce.
Some birds cache twelve months of the year, but the most common caching time is in the fall. Food is plentiful, which means there’s enough to take care of daily energy needs with enough leftovers to put some away for later. Amazingly, a single bird can have from hundreds to thousands of hiding spots.
How can a bird possibly remember so many locations?
The answer to that question is truly amazing.
They are equipped with what’s referred to as spatial memory, allowing them to remember exactly where they’ve stashed a single seed by using visual landmarks such as rocks and vegetation.
But the Black-capped chickadees, specifically, are even more amazing. They actually enlarge the memory portion of their brains during the fall caching season by producing more memory cells. Incredible.
Winter Diet and Survival Methods
The cold is hard on chickadees but, once again, they have some special coping mechanisms.
Digestion takes no more than 30 minutes for the chickadee. During the winter, weight gained during the day is shivered away at night. But, that same shaking action produces much-needed body heat. They need a high in-take of fats and carbohydrates, which is exactly what the black oil sunflower seeds provide. And remember that disgusting mention of carrion? The birds are zeroing in on the fat deposits when they peck away at the roadkill.
The chickadee needs more food in winter but, at the same time, the types of available food decrease. They must eat almost non-stop during the day in order to survive the night.
Chickadees are able to literally lower their body temperature by 14 degrees F. at night as a way to conserve energy – like lowering the temperature in the house so the heat will run less. They can do this by lowering their metabolic rate. This means they burn fewer calories, create less energy, and thereby lower body temperature.
Groups of chickadees also roost together at night, using the physical contact of one body to another to heat themselves and the surrounding air.
A chickadee’s body temperature should be approximately 110 degrees F.
The tiny chickadee is one of the most fascinating of all bird species. Playful. Curious. Acrobatic. Unafraid of humans.
Their bodies and their brains are so incredibly equipped for survival but, despite all these special characteristics, the usual lifespan is no more than two to three years. Only 20 percent of the babies born in any given year will live beyond their first birthday.
They aren’t around for very long, so enjoy them while you can.
Karen Tomolonius Clayton says
We observed a chickadee “eating” something off our potted poinsettia plant. It is green, not red — if that means anything. Is he getting bugs or the milk from the stems?
Yours in wonderment,