Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Everyone loves Chickadees

Admittedly, the outdoors can be a bit boring at this time of the year. It hasn't warmed up enough to see any obvious signs of spring (i.e. skunk cabbage, fiddleheads of ferns, etc) and the presence of snow has lost its luster. The birds do sing from time to time, but mostly on those warmest of late winter days. So what is out there to look forward to on a hike through the forest in late February? Black-capped Chickadees!

These gregarious little birds can be found in our forests, parks and backyards all year round. A number of the same chickadees will remain in the same general viscinity for most of the year. If you've ever taken a close look at some of the chickadees visiting the feeding station at the museum, you may have noticed a few of them with small, silvery bracelets. Those are the birds we've banded in the field only 50 yards from the south side of the museum. I see a few banded individuals at my feeders in front of the cottage as well. Obviously our chickadees don't go very far.

So what's so great about chickadees? Well for one thing, they're always a source of entertainment. Whether its at the feeders or out on the trail, it seems as though they're always present and easy to observe. Chickadees at feeders become regular visitors and often become my personal reminder that the feeders have gone empty (when the sunflower seeds are gone, they make certain to protest loudly in the grapevine in front of the cottage).

Chickadees are also fun to watch when they are foraging in the forest. They often move in mixed species flocks with Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers. The wave of activity that washes over the forest in these small flocks is incredible. Keep an eye on the chickadees as they hop and flit from branch to branch, searching for insect larvae, spider's eggs, seeds, and picking at the tree's buds. Often, their searching leads to them clinging upside down from the tips of the smallest twigs.

Another endearing quality of the chickadees is their curiosity. These birds can easily be brought to within arm's length by softly whistling their song or call. Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds describes the call as chick-a-dee-dee-dee, or dee-dee-dee (any guess how the bird got it's name?). The song is a clear, whistled fee-bee, with the first note higher than the second. Many bird watchers attract the close attention of birds by pshing. Just say "psh, psh, psh" or "psh, psh, psh, psh, psh" a few times to draw the attention of a nearby bird. They won't stay for long once they realize it's you making the noise, but it can lead to a brief, close encounter.

Finally, chickadees show a great deal more trust (or tolerance, I'm not sure) towards us than most animal species. I've seen plenty of pictures of chickadees feeding from people's hands. I've had that experience myself a few times with the birds in my yard. More than a few times, I've had a chickadee perch on a freshly-filled feeder even before I could finish hanging it back in it's place. Their willingness to allow us to get close makes for excellent photo opportunities. While taking the photos above, I was within 8 feet of each of the birds while they went about their day.

While taking the photos below, I was very near the feeder as well. This allowed me to capture the chickadee's process of acquiring, opening and enjoying a sunflower seed:

Picking out just the right sunflower seed...

Now he's got it...

Place it between the toes...

Pecking, pecking, pecking...

A little more pecking to remove the seed from the shell...


So enjoy your chickadees while we're in the doldrums of winter. Watch your feeders or seek out their presence on the trail. Want to know more about Black-capped Chickadees? Try a visit to Cornell's All About Birds website to look up information about chickadees or any other bird species you'd like to know more about.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

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