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Thursday, January 1, 2015

MI Critter of the Month 1/2015: Black-Capped Chickadee

Happy January, dear readers!  I hope that 2015 will be an excellent year for you all.

I thought that once a month it would be nice to learn about a local "critter" often found in Michigan gardens.  To that end, here is our first:  the black-capped chickadee!

Chickadees are adorable!  There is a mated pair of them that love to hang out in the dense foliage of the arbor vitae in my back yard, and frequent the bird feeder.  I have named them "Herbert" and "Rose". They share the feeder openly with other birds, and don't mind when I get close to watch them or take their picture.

Where to Find Black-Capped Chickadees:

Chickadees live in the deciduous and mixed forests, open woodlands and suburban areas of North America.  They range from Alaska east across Canada to Newfoundland and south to northern California, northern New Mexico, Missouri and northern New Jersey.  They winter south to Maryland and Texas.  They are very common here in Michigan! 
Chickadees like to nest in the holes of rotten trees, natural cavities, and bird boxes. They hide in individual holes alone in the winter, and form nests for their eggs in the spring.  The female usually selects the spring nesting area. They make their cup-like nests out of grass, fur, plant down, feathers and moss.  Then, they lay 1 to 13 brown speckled white eggs in spring. They incubate the eggs for 12 to 13 days, after which the eggs hatch into ugly little babies with eyes closed, and no feathers except for some grey fuzzy patches here and there.

How To Recognize a Black-Capped Chickadee:

Well, first of all, they look like the pictures shown here!  They are sized 4.7 to 5.9 inches (12-15cm).  They have a wingspan of 6.3 to 8.3 inches (16-21cm) and weigh 0.3 to 0.5 oz (9-14g). They have a black "cap" on top of their head and a black patch on their throat.  They have white cheeks, a gray back, and dull white underparts.  The males and females look very much alike.
You can also recognize a chickadee by its song.  It sings either "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" (adding more "dee's" when excited or in danger) or whistles "fee-bee." The Cornell Ornithology Lab has recorded their song, and you can listen to it here: Link to Chickadee Song.  Chickadees use their song to communicate with each other, but other birds also listen in and heed their "danger" warnings.

How to Attract Black-Capped Chickadees To Your Yard or Garden:

Feed them! They love to hang out at bird feeders. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "In winter Black-Capped Chickadees like to eat about half seeds, berries, and other plant matter, and half animal food (insects, spiders, suet, and sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses). In spring, summer, and fall, insects, spiders, and other animal food make up 80-90 percent of their diet. At feeders they take mostly sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, peanut butter, and mealworms. They peck a hole in the shell, and then chip out and eat tiny bits of seed while expanding the hole.This means that you can feed them the standard bird seed found at most mega-marts as well as blocks of suet.  They will love you for it! Chickadees will also collect and hide food for later -- a little like squirrels. They can remember thousands of hiding places!

You can also provide nesting boxes for them.  Place the nesting box at least 60 ft into a wooded area and put some sawdust inside.  Put a guard on it (like an upside down funnel) to prevent predators from climbing into the nest.  Do not put the nesting box directly onto a tree or predators will be able to enter the nest. 

Black-Capped Chickadee Behavior:

Chickadees are pretty social for birds.  They share the feeder with many other birds.  According to Cornell Lab, "Winter flocks with chickadees serving as the nucleus contain mated chickadee pairs and non-breeders, but generally not the offspring of the adult pairs within that flock. Other species that associate with chickadee flocks include nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, creepers, warblers and vireos."
You can see from my picture to the left that this is true.  The day that this picture was taken, the chickadee shared the feeder with a flock of wrens, a mated pair of cardinals and at least one woodpecker.  Chickadees are also fairly curious and easy to tame.  They like to investigate new things and can learn to eat out of the human hand.

Black-capped chickadee populations are on the decline.  Please help work to protect these and all other wild creatures.  They are national treasures.

In summary:  Black-capped chickadees = friendly, flying winter cuteness! They make the garden a cheerful place, even during the coldest months.


To geek out on more chickadee (and other bird) information, please check out these resources (the citation list for this blog post) and search for the books at the Amazon link below:

Bull, John et. al. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region. Chanticleer Press Inc. 1994. Pg. 611. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - "Black-capped Chickadee." Webpage: Active 1/1/2015.

National Audubon Society - "Black-capped Chickadee." Webpage:  Active 1/1/2015.

Roach, Margaret. "A way to Garden - What birds do in Winter."  Blog: Active 1/1/2015.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology collects data from citizens who count birds in their back yard.  They use this information to estimate bird populations and track bird habitats.  You can find out more about participating in this project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science Web Page. 

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