Monday, August 17, 2009

In the backyard... Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped ChickadeeBlack-capped Chickadee, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 1 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The Black-capped Chickadee is a familiar backyard bird to those living in the northern United States and southern Canada. It is found from coast to coast at these mid-latitudes.

Chickadees are the North American name for the birds that are simply called tits (old German for something small) in the rest of Europe, Asia, and Africa where the other members of this family of birds live. The chickadee name is onomatopoeic. That is, the name describes the chick-a-dee-dee call sound the bird makes. The more upset and alarmed the chickadee is, the more dee-dee's are in this call. Other birds named for their calls or songs include killdeer, flicker, sora, phoebe, cuckoo, whip-poor-will and others.

Most chickadees are the same general pattern of black cap, white face, black bib, pale underparts, and darker back. There are, however, Blue Tits in Eurasia that are colored blue (of course), green, and yellow, in addition to black and white. All these birds are small, plump-bodied, with a long tail, and small, round head, universally described as "cute." Combined with their curious nature, pleasant chattering calls, lack of fear around people, and ready acceptance of bird feeders, bird baths, and bird houses, their habits make them a favorite backyard bird.

Black-capped Chickadees are found in lowland deciduous and mixed woods and willow stream sides throughout the Pacific Northwest. They generally avoid dense conifer forests, sage and juniper flats, and mountains. About 80% of the food of chickadees is animal matter, insects, caterpillars, and the like. The rest is seeds. The seed component goes up considerably during the winter.

In the Pacific Northwest Black-capped Chickadees are most similar to Mountain and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. The gray back of Black-capped Chickadee is quite different from the rusty brown back of Chestnut-backed Chickadee. The Mountain Chickadee has a white eyebrow stripe and pale gray sides. The sides of Black-capped Chickadee are buffy (as in the photo above), but not rich chestnut as in the northern populations of Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

From Alaska to Maine the song of Black-capped Chickadee is an invariable, whistled, fee-bee-ee, also transcribed as hey, sweetie, the second notes slightly lower than the first. However, the songs of birds on islands off Massachusetts are different (sweetie-hey or sweetie-sweetie). The songs of Black-capped Chickadees in Oregon and Washington are also different from birds elsewhere. There are variations, but songs usually are longer in the Pacific Northwest, fee-bee-bee-bee, or even bee-bee-bee-bee-bee all on one pitch, as I just heard outside my window.

Chickadees may be the first bird to discover your backyard feeder or bird bath. They are fond of black oil sunflower seeds. They take these from the feeder, one seed at a time, and fly away to a tree branch. There, they hold the seed with their feet and pound it open with their stout bills. They may also steal the seeds away and hide them in a cache for later retrieval.