The next time you hear a familiar “chick a dee dee dee”, listen closely, because a chickadee’s call can tell you a lot. Biologists have discovered that the more “dees” there were in a Black-capped Chickadee’s warning call, the more dangerous the predator. One very threatening predator is the pygmy owl. Its prey is often small birds, and they are able to maneuver swiftly enough to capture a chickadee. When scientists tethered these birds close to chickadees in a test environment, they caused the chickadees to add as many as 23 “dees” to their warning calls! Larger predators that don’t maneuver well and don’t cause much of a threat to chickadees only warranted an additional 3 or 4 “dees!” Chickadees also have a quiet “seet” call, which is believed to warn others of flying raptors. In fact, biologists have actually recognized more than 30 variations in chickadee songs and calls.
There are seven species of chickadees found in North America. The Black Capped Chickadee of the north was once called the Appalachian Chickadee, while the Mountain Chickadee of the Rockies and west was once called Bailey’s Chickadee–and the Chestnut-sided or Chestnut-backed Chickadee of the northwest coast was once named Barlow’s. Chickadees are in the same family as the Tits of Europe and Africa and the well known American Titmouse.
Although chickadees seem to be continuously at our feeders, the main staple of their diets is insects. Chickadees also enjoy insect eggs, spiders and spider eggs, berries and cone seeds. They are also readily attracted to your backyard bird feeders filled with suet, peanuts or black oil sunflower seeds. They cache food under tree bark for winter when food is scarce, and just like squirrels, they do remember where they hid their stash!
Chickadees begin to pair off for mating around the end of February. Favorite nesting sites are natural holes in trees, or holes made by woodpeckers, but they will readily take to an enclosed nesting box. About 8 eggs are laid in the nest, and about 7 weeks later, the baby birds are ready to go off on their own. Non-migratory chickadees will flock together in winter for greater success in finding food and will often use their summer nests or a winter roost for warmth, with several birds huddling together.
Naturally curious and fairly tame, it’s easy to feed chickadees right from your hand. Load up with sunflower seeds and stand close to your feeder or a tree with your palm flat and hand outstretched at arm’s length. Stay perfectly still! With patience, you will be rewarded with a brief visit that feels like a puff of air on your fingertips!
— R. Brune