By Tom Dennis
Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus
The Black-capped Chickadee is one of our most common backyard feeder birds and is well-known for many reasons including coloration, song, and boldness around mankind. During my many years of studying, writing, and talking about birds, I’ve heard many complaints about other bird species, however, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the friendly and cheery Black-capped Chickadee. This common and seemingly simple species is anything but simple…I think you will be amazed by some of the unique qualities that make this tiny bird “fly above” much of creation.
I’ll be brief with coloration as most of you are aware of this. They are considered to be a medium-sized chickadee but they are a small bird with a length of 5.5 inches and weigh in at 0.4 ounces. Their primary color is gray with white underparts and an olive-buff wash on the flanks. The gray wing and tail feathers are edged with white and their white cheeks are sharply bordered by a black bib below and by the “namesake” and unique black cap above. The short bill is black and the eyes are dark brown but usually appear black.
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Black-capped Chickadees are one of six chickadee species found in the lower 48 states. They have the largest range of any of the other six; the southern border is found generally above 40 degrees north latitude close to the northern border of Ohio. They range north to most of Alaska and inhabit all of Canada below the Hudson Bay, extending farther north as you head west. They are considered non-migratory and one of their unique features involves how they handle extremely cold weather.
They are one of the very few birds that can significantly lower their body temperature to conserve energy and enhance survival, a condition known as “a state of torpor”.
Their normal body temperature of 108F can safely fall to 86F which is amazing when we consider that humans reach the danger level of hypothermia with a drop from 98.6F to only 95F! They also are known for caching food (both seeds and insects) and during cold and windy weather they limit foraging distances and also lower their flight levels to take advantage of protective vegetation and other ground features.
They have many song types, the most common being their namesake “chick-a-dee-dee” call and the springtime “fee-bee” call. Their songs are actually one of the most complex vocalizations known in the animal world and computer analysis along with visual study indicates that the communications are so unique that they can even identify predators to species level with alarm call variations and, indicate individual birds or particular flocks of birds. If you listen carefully you may pick up on the “chick-a-dee-dee” warning; the more times the “dees” are repeated the higher the warning level. The highest number of “dees” recorded is twenty-three, reserved for their prime threat, the Pygmy Owl. The “dee” is comprised of four distinct notes that are made in simultaneous groupings of two or three of the four notes. This is made possible by the bird’s syrinx, an organ much more complex than our larynx. The “fee-bee” song is made by both sexes but most commonly by males when defending mating territories. Listen up men, the best singers get the women! This song can vary geographically but in our area, the “fee-bee” is very clearly the musical notes “C” followed by “A” and is heard every spring.
These common “feeder” birds are attracted by suet and black-oil sunflower seeds which they carry to a branch to crack and eat and possibly cache. Food items are stored in various sites including bark, clusters of dead leaves or conifer needles or knotholes and the bird’s memory of the cache location can last up to 28 days with shorter-term memory even remembering food type and quality. I often can’t even remember what I had for breakfast! Their food of choice is insects and that includes overwintering insect eggs and larvae. Keep your feeders full, especially during extremely cold weather when their survival rates double with the availability of supplemental foods.
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot. Our next meeting will be held on Monday, January 6 starting at 6:45 PM. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us and stay tuned for details of our sixth annual Winter Bird Blast on February 8, 2020.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.