Chickadee, feathered small boy

The black-capped chickadee is not just a bird of the woods. Like the robin it has adapted to the home areas of people, to residential areas where there are trees – and bird feeders. And they are with us year-round. They seem to be especially drawn to bird feeders in winter. Several of these little feathered sprites visit my feeders daily except when it’s raining heavily or the wind is strong enough to blow seeds off the feeder trays.  Temperature doesn’t seem to deter them. They come to my feeders even on the coldest days.

Often I try to count chickadees but it’s impossible.  They’re almost always moving. One or two fly to a feeder from a nearby tree or bush, pick at the seeds, then fly back to a tree or bush.

Being such a common bird at feeders it is easy to believe chickadees are seed eaters. And they are. But not as much as it seems. People who have studied their food habits report that approximately two-thirds of their food is animal, small insects, caterpillars, insect larvae and eggs and little spiders. Much of this fare is gleaned from twigs, branches and bark. Watch a chickadee and you will likely see it cling to the bark of a tree, not like a woodpecker for it doesn’t use its tail as a prop, but crossways or head down, like a nuthatch. Or you’ll see it on a branch or twig and, just as often, you’ll see it beneath a twig, clasping the twig with its feet and hanging head down.

Chickadees attract our attention by their almost constant activity and by their calls. The black-capped, the common chickadee of approximately the northern third of Indiana, calls its name, chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee. Or it shortens its name calling dee-dee-dee.

The black-cap has two other calls, one a high, whistled fee-bee. Not like the fee-bee of a phoebe. That bird’s call is buzzy, breathy.

To someone who can whistle high enough, chickadees will often respond. I’ve often been in a woods without a bird in sight, nor did I hear any, particularly in winter or early spring, whistled high and clear, and in minutes had several chickadees whistling and flitting about me.

The third black-cap call, given almost always by a bird on the nest, is a sudden, explosive pluush. Before giving that call the bird fluffs up its feathers and appears to swell to near twice its normal size. I’ve heard people say that when a chickadee gives that call it also spits at the intruder who elicited the call.

Black-capped chickadees are cavity nesters meaning they nest in unused woodpecker holes and in bird houses that are put up in a wooded area. They also make holes sometimes, digging into rotting, punky wood. I once watched a pair of black-caps picking wood out of the top of a rotting stump. When they finished the cavity they made was open to the rain. I could see into it easily and I visited regularly. The female laid four eggs, hatched them and the couple raised and fledged four young.

As I write two black-capped chickadees, maybe more, with tufted titmice, a downy woodpecker, two white-breasted nuthatches, a cardinal and a red-belled woodpecker fly back and forth to the feeder outside the window beyond my computer. Their activity gives brightness in an otherwise cloudy, dull day.

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