For the Birds: Those acrobatic chickadees

Monday, January 24, 2011

Black-capped Chickadee. Photo by Christine Southwick.
by Christine Southwick

That cheery “Chickadee-dee-dee at your feeders means it is time to grab a cup of tea, sit down, and watch those bold little acrobats with the black caps and white cheeks take turns snatching a black-oil sunflower seed and darting back to a branch to open it.

Black-capped chickadees have the most complex social order of any local feeder birds. The most dominant bird feeds first, carefully choosing the heaviest seed before flying off to eat it in the safety of cover. You’ll often see them hanging upside down to reach delectable bugs and spiders, or a tasty morsel from the suet.

Inquisitive and friendly, chickadees will be the first to find your new feeder, and announce their find to the neighborhood birds. In the winter, nuthatches, kinglets, and downy woodpeckers tag along with chickadees because they know these non-migrating bundles of energy know how to find all the winter specials.

Chickadees are the local watchbirds. They are the first to sound the alarm "Predator!" The more loud "dee-dee-dees" there are at the end of their call, the more danger. Humans rate a "one" extra dee-dee when out in the yard. A Sharp-shinned Hawk gets about a "five", and every bird hits the bushes, with no delays.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo by Christine Southwick.
Chickadees, both the Black-capped, and the Northwest’s Chestnut-backed chickadees, will readily use nest boxes. Buy boxes with a 1 1/8” hole, place in or near a tree with a clear flight path to the opening, put some wood shavings in the bottom, and you will probably have a chickadee pair taking up housekeeping. The male brings food to his mate while she sits on the four to five eggs. He helps feed the young, and after the young move away, the bonded pair will stay coming to your feeders.

Want chickadees regularly?
  • Feed them:
  • black-oiled sunflower seeds for energy - and it's fun to watch them crack open the shells;
  • suet for winter, and while on the nest;
  • water all year round.
  • Add woody scrubs and tall evergreens to your yard - you won't need pesticides because the birds will eat the bugs;
  • Shoo away roaming cats.
You’ll have your darling visitors, and break-time entertainment.

Christine Southwick is the Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager and Board member of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory.


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