Got seeds? Black-capped chickadees happy to take ‘em

By: 

Cathy Carnes, Special to the Times Herald


A black-capped chickadee picks a sunflower seed from a backyard feeder. (Photo by Cathy Carnes)

I’ve been watching one of our favorite birds, the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) at our feeders. These little balls of energy always seem to lift one’s spirits with their bright colors, high energy and curiosity.

They have a distinctive black cap and bib; their body is light in color, and their wings are black with white edges. It’s easy to remember their name, as it is reflected in their chick-a-dee-dee call, which interestingly is an alarm call. The more “dees” in the call, the greater the alarm they are communicating to not only their flock mates, but to other bird species that associate with them. So hanging out with chickadees has a real, and maybe even lifesaving, benefit!

Chickadees love seeds. Their stout little beaks are adapted to crack small nuts and seeds. They are especially fond of sunflower seeds, so our feeders are stocked with them. In hopes of getting some good pictures of these birds, we set one of our feeders near a window and, sure enough, it was the chickadees that first found it and frequent it most often. Upon alighting on the feeder, it cocks its head, checks out the palate of seeds spread before it and finally picks one up and flies off with it.

I learned from Alan Haney’s enjoyable and insightful 2014 book, “Jewels of Nature, Delightful Birds I Have Known,” that black-capped chickadees have a strong tendency to cache or hide seeds for later consumption. Research has shown that they seem able to remember where they have hidden thousands of seed in cracks and crevices of trees. An amazing memory for such a small bird!

Their range is large; they are found across the upper half of the United States, throughout the boreal forests of Canada to central Alaska.

But how does such a small bird make it through our frigid winter nights? Trees with cavities or holes provide ideal sleeping quarters. Chickadees excavate or find cavities in well-rotted wood, such as may be found in trees with softer wood like alder and birch.

Once inside, they puff up their feathers to provide an insulating layer of trapped warm air and turn down their internal thermostats so they use less energy while they burn fat all night. Like other birds, chickadees also have a wonderful network of blood vessels in their feet and legs that minimizes heat loss.

According to Haney, the population of black-capped chickadees has been increasing for at least a half-century, in part because of the bird feeders we put out. As the winter days begin to lengthen, usually in mid- to late February, listen for the song of the black-capped chickadee.

Its song is relatively simple — a high-pitched, single drawn-out note, sounding like “cheese.” As the days become longer, the song gets more complex; some hear the call as “cheeeese-burgers, cheeese-burgers!”

Keep those bird feeders stocked with seed, and you will no doubt attract these cheery winter sprites who seem more comfortable with us humans than other birds. And they may, if patience prevails, even learn to take seeds from your hand. We are lucky to share the companionship of such a lively and beautiful little bird all year long!

For more information on the black-capped chickadee go to: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/lifehistory.