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My Bird of Choice: The Black-capped Chickadee

Updated on May 4, 2013

My Bird of Century

As we approach a new year I have been thinking back to the past century and which species of all New England birds has meant the most to me. The species I remember being part of my life since I was a small boy is the black-capped chickadee. This cheerful little bundle of energy came to winter feeders my parents had put up outside my bedroom window.

I would see and hear them in the spruces in Maine where we went in the summer.

The black-capped chickadee was my mother's favorite bird and she treasured her small collection of chickadee pictures, articles, figures, and boxes with painted covers. Her joy upon hearing the first chickadee love call in late winter was infectious.

Wherever I have lived since leaving my parents' home, I have enjoyed the presence of these tirelessly cheerful birds.

I love these little birds

I love these little birds
I love these little birds

Acrobatic

There are six species of North American chickadees of which three reside in the East: the Carolina chickadee of the southern states, the boreal chickadee which inhabits northern coniferous forests, and the familiar widespread black-capped.

Chickadees belong to the titmouse family (“Paridae”) which includes over fifty species worldwide. There are eleven species of Paridae in North America. Chickadee species have brown or black caps and black bibs; titmice are grayish and crested. All are cavity nesters and most are nonmigrators. Short, sharp bills, and strong legs that enable them to glean food from branch tips characterize these small, acrobatic birds.

It is their acrobatics and their pert personalities that make these engaging gymnasts so popular. The chickadee is the state bird of both Maine and Massachusetts.

Seventy Percent of Diet

Black-capped chickadees mate for life. Both parents excavate the cavity, build the nest, and raise four to six young. Throughout the year, 70 percent of the black-capped's diet consists of insects. In the summer, nestlings are fed insects such as larvae of moths, especially tent caterpillars, spiders, beetles, particularly weevils, flies, wasps, true bugs, plant lice, scale insects, leafhoppers and tree hoppers.

In the winter, the black-capped consumes large numbers of eggs of moths, lice, katydids, and spiders. The rest of their diet consists of seeds from pine, hemlock, bird, poison ivy, ragweed, blueberry, service berry, and, of course, sunflowers.

Chickadee Flocks

Chickadee families stay together until fall and then disperse into various flocks. The parent pair join with other pairs and juveniles to form a winter feeding flock of ten to fifteen birds. Chickadee flock study is a popular occupation of many bird researchers and watchers.

Black-cappeds are unusual in terms of territory, writes Donald Stokes in "Guide to Bird Behavior". Like some other birds, they hold both breeding and nonbreeding territories. But unlike any of our other common birds, their nonbreeding territory (winter) is occupied and defended by a flock and not by an individual bird or mated pair. These flocks are highly structured, says Stokes, and have predictable patterns of movement.

The winter flocks often include several other species such as titmice, downy woodpeckers, white and red-breasted nuthatches, kinglets, and finches, such as redpolls as they move through birches and alders.

Survival Rate Doubles

According to Laura C. Martin in "Folklore of Birds", researchers have found that black-capped chickadees get only 20 to 25 percent of their food from feeders. Mostly, they eat from woods and hedge rows.

However, this situation changes when the mercury falls below 10 degrees F, Mrs. Martin continues. The studies indicate that the survival rate of chickadees doubles when they have access to bird feeders. During cold weather these tiny birds need twenty times more food than in the summer.

Bringer of News

Black-capped chickadees have approximately fifteen different calls. In the cold months, they use the "chick-a-dee-dee" and "chip-chip-chip" calls to stay in touch with each other as they move through the trees.

Their "feee-beee" song is a harbinger of spring even though it might be heard as early as the last week of January. Some people have thought the "feee-bee" song to sound like "sweet weather" or "spring soon."

The Cherokee Indians, said writer Laura Martin, called the chickadee "tsikilili" and considered it a bringer of news. When a chickadee perched near the house, it was thought that a long absent friend would soon be heard from or that an enemy was plotting against you.

The species name, "Parus atricapillus" is from the Latin words altris, meaning "black," and capillus, meaning "hair of the head."

Throughout the last seventy years, these friendly, black-capped bundles of energy have brought joy into my life. They are my choice for "bird of the century."

Please see my article on Binoculars for Birding and Christmas stocking holders and stands.

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