Goshen News, Goshen, IN

November 3, 2013

Chickadees: The feathered small boy of birds

Goshen News

---- — The chickadee is described in “Birds of America” as the “feathered small boy of the woods,” and of bird feeders, I would add.

I learned to recognize it, to name it, when I too was a small boy. It was one of the first, perhaps the first bird to come to the bird feeder SPT GNDad helped me make and hang outside our dining room window.

Chickadees are active, little birds, only slightly larger than a house wren. They’re gray above with white-edged wing feathers, white below and have a black cap, white cheeks and a black bib. They’re as easy to recognize as a robin, a cardinal or a blue jay. They’re common, too.

I saw them in the trees around our house, in trees of our neighborhood in other neighborhoods, and in trees along the river where I went fishing with Dad and Grandpa.

I learned to recognize a chickadee by its song as well as its appearance. By its songs. First, it told me its name, chicak-a-dee-dee-dee. Often it omitted its first name, calling only dee-dee-dee. It also whistled, a high, thin, whistled fee-bee or fee-bee-eee.

I learned to imitate that whistle, and when I did, chickadees often answered and gathered in the branches of trees around me.

That chickadee, the one I learned when I was a boy, was the black-capped. Its range, summer and winter, is the northern half of the United States and the southern half of Canada, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, and in the West north to Alaska. Chickadees live all across North America. To the south is the Carolina, to the north is the boreal, and in the West is the mountain chickadee. All are similar in size and appearance.

In “Birds of America,” the black-capped chickadee is described as “frolicking and frisking from tree to tree, happy and carefree.” I’ve seen all four species of chickadee, and they all act that way throughout the day.

Only in heavy rain or snow, or in strong wind at night are chickadees still. And when one is incubating a clutch of eggs.

Chickadees have to be active when they’re awake. Their metabolism is high, and they’re so little they have little fat reserve. They eat incessantly when awake, acquiring energy at about the same rate they’re using it. At night, and during severe weather when they are forced to be inactive, their metabolism slows and they become sluggish and torpid.

Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are common feeder birds. They don’t crowd a feeder like house sparrows and house finches, mourning doves, grackles and starlings. They fly back and forth between a feeder and the branches of nearby trees and bushes.

Food habit studies, however, have shown that their primary food is insects and small spiders. When flitting about among the leaves or the bare branches in winter, they’re feeding like warblers, gleaning insects, insect larvae or eggs.

Seeds are supplemental food. The percentage of seeds eaten increases in winter, as would be expected and as any bird feeder observer can tell if he or she counts chickadees coming to a feeder.

Count chickadees! Sure, and when you’ve managed to do that, count snowflakes the next time it snows. Counting snowflakes might even be easier if it isn’t snowing heavily, because the snowflakes will all be falling, not whisking up and down or back and forth.

Chickadees nest in cavities, in deserted downy woodpecker holes, natural cracks and crevices in trees, in bird houses that aren’t occupied by house wrens, house sparrows or other birds. Being last in line for cavity nest sites, it hardly seems possible that chickadees can be among our most common woodland and feeder birds. I’d prove they are, if only they’d sit still and let me count them.