Familiar Birds Home Page

  Home   About Us   Mission   Sources   E-mail Us
  Index   Contents

 Life Histories 

  Appendix   Links

A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

Black-capped Chickadee
Parus atricapillus  

Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1947: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 191: 322-338]

The titmice, the family of birds to which the black-capped chickadee belongs, are widely distributed in the two hemispheres and in North America are represented by numerous genera, species, and races from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Over this vast area, in England, and on the continent of Europe, and with us they are well known and very popular birds.

For our black-capped chickadee of the Northeastern United States our regard goes far beyond popularity. The chickadee is perhaps the best-known bird in its range and appears so trustful of man that we look on it with real affection. And no wonder--for chickadees are such cheerful little birds. When we watch a flock of them in winter they remind us of a group of happy, innocent little children playing in the snow. Thinking back to the early days of New England's history, we can imagine that the Pilgrim Fathers, when the chickadees came about the settlement at Plymouth in 1620, watched them as we do now. They were, perhaps, the first friends to welcome the travelers to the New World.

Many writers praise the chickadee. Bradford Torrey (1889) says enthusiastically: "It would be a breach of good manners, an inexcusable ingratitude, to write ever so briefly of the New England winter without noting this [the chickadee], the most engaging and characteristic enlivener of our winter woods; who revels in snow and ice, and is never lacking in abundant measures of faith and cheerfulness, enough not only for himself, but for any chance wayfarer of our own kind." Elsewhere, Torrey (1885) calls the chickadee "the bird of the merry heart."

Spring.--The black-capped chickadee is migratory to some extent, but, as in the case of some other permanent residents, it is often difficult, except at favorable observation points, to determine the time and extent of its northward and southward movements. Taverner and Swales (1908) state: "Our experience with the species at Detroit leads us to believe that it is more migrational than is generally supposed. They are common through the winter, but about the first of April the great bulk of them depart, leaving but a few scattered summer residents behind."

J. Van Tyne (1928) gives a vivid description of a definite migration. He says:

On May 20, 1928, while collecting at the tip of Sand Point (seven miles southwest of Caseville, Michigan), I witnessed a most interesting migration flight of Chickadees. Sand Point juts out nearly four miles into Saginaw Bay from the southeast, and apparently forms an important point of departure for many species of birds migrating northward across the bay. The day was clear but with little wind. At 9:30 in the morning I noticed a compact flock of over fifty chickadees flitting rapidly through the brushy growth toward the end of the point. Their strange appearance immediately attracted my attention. They seemed very nervous and tense, with necks outstretched and feathers closely compressed against the body. They made no attempt to feed, but kept moving steadily toward the end of the point. Reaching the last tree, a twelve-foot sapling, the first birds flitted upward to the topmost twigs and there hesitated, lacking the courage to launch forth. But the rest of the flock, pushed off the tree-top, the leaders finally launched forth, the rest following in rapid succession. They started upward at an angle of fully forty-five degrees. After climbing perhaps a hundred feet the leaders lost their courage, and, hesitating a moment, they all dropped precipitately back to the shelter of the bushes. But once there they immediately headed for the sapling again and repeated the performance. Finally, after several false starts, they continued out over the lake toward the Charity Islands in the distance.

It was a new experience for me to see chickadees fly by day out across miles of open water.

Courtship.--The chickadee has apparently developed no ritual of courtship other than the pursuit of the female by the male--a common performance of many of the smaller birds. Chickadees are so common and so continually under our observation at close range that if they practiced any marked trait when pairing off, it would certainly have been noticed and described.

Dr. Samuel S. Dickey says of the mating of the chickadee: "From what I am able to learn of this process, the birds grow agitated late in March and increase their vivacity during April and early in May. They hurry between aisles of trees and swerve over bypaths, and males dart at and even clasp one another. Then they part, and the more dominant male pursues and chases a female over brush piles and even to the ground. Then up they arise and hurry onward. A few such days of immoderate activity, and their nuptial rites seem completed."

Nesting.--The commonest nesting site of the chickadee is a hole, made by the birds themselves, in a dead stub or branch of a gray birch. From such a tree the decayed wood can easily be removed in dry chips to form a cavity, and the ring of strong bark holds the branch firmly together.

Arthur C. Bent says that in Bristol County, Mass., three-quarters of the nests he has found have been in such a location, 4 to 8 feet from the ground. He continues: "Other nests have been in natural cavities in apple trees in orchards, or in other deciduous trees. I believe that chickadees almost always, at least partially, excavate their own nest cavities; I have seen them doing it; they cut through the outer bark of birch stubs with their strong little bills and easily remove the rotten wood from the interior."

Edward H. Forbush (1912) states:

A hole in a decayed birch stump, two or three feet from the ground, a knothole in an old apple tree, in a fence post, or in an elm, forty or fifty feet from the ground, the old deserted home of some Woodpecker, a small milk can nailed up in a tree, or a nesting box at some farmhouse window, may be selected by the Chickadee for its home. Commonly it digs out a nest hole in the decaying stump of a birch or pine. It is unable to penetrate sound wood, as I have seen it repeatedly try to enlarge a small hole in a white pine nesting box, but it could not start a chip. Often the Chickadee gains an entrance through the hard outer coating of a post or stump into the decaying interior by choosing, as a vantage point, a hole made by some woodpecker in search of a grub. The Chickadee works industriously to deepen and enlarge this cavity, sometimes making a hole nine or more inches deep; and the little bird is wise enough to carry the tell-tale chips away and scatter them far and wide--something the Woodpeckers are less careful about.

Sometimes the hole is excavated in the broken top of a leaning stump or tree, and once I found one in the top of an erect white pine stump with no other shelter from the storm.

If we come upon a pair of chickadees at work excavating a cavity, we can step up very close to them and watch without interrupting them at all. Both members of the pair work at the same time but visit the nest alternately. Each one digs out a beakful of chips and flies away with it, and no sooner is one gone than the other is back at the nest, excavating. Back and forth they go, working quickly and, except for their faint lisping notes, silently. Mr. Bent describes a pair at work. He says: "Both birds took turns at the work, digging out the rotten wood, bringing out a billful each time and scattering it from the nearby trees. Sometimes both birds would be at the hole together; one would watch while the other worked, but would not enter until its mate had come out; they were never both in the hole at the same time."

Bradford Torrey (1885) comments on such a scene, "the pretty labors of my little architect," thus: "Their demeanor toward each other all this time was beautiful to see; no effusive display of affection, but every appearance of a perfect mutual understanding and contentment. And their treatment of me was no less appropriate and delightful--a happy combination of freedom and dignified reserve."

The nest proper is placed in the bottom of the cavity and, according to the testimony of Craig S. Thoms (1927) and Dr. Samuel S. Dickey, is made entirely by the female. The materials of the nest, as listed by Edward H. Forbush (1912) consist "of such warm materials as cottony vegetable fibers, hairs, wool, mosses, feathers and insect cocoons. Every furry denizen of the woods, and some domestic animals, may sometimes contribute hair or fur to the Chickadee's nest."

Aretas A. Saunders states that chickadees sometimes add the wool of cinnamon fern to their nest, "the same material commonly used by the ruby-throated hummingbird."

Ora W. Knight (1908) says: "From a week to ten days is required to excavate the hole and three or four additional days to gather together [the materials]. . .which make up the nest proper." He describes a typical nest found at Orono, Maine: "This nest was placed in a cavity eight and a half inches deep near the top of a rotten white birch stub, six and two-thirds feet from the ground. The diameter of the entrance was two and a quarter inches. The nest proper measured two inches in diameter by one inch deep inside."

Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Anywhere from 5 to 10 eggs may be found in the chickadee's nest, but 6 to 8 are the commonest numbers, and as many as 13 have been recorded. These vary from ovate to rounded-ovate, with a tendency toward the latter shape. They have little or no gloss. The ground color is white, and they are more or less evenly marked with small spots or fine dots of light or dark reddish brown; usually these markings are well distributed, but sometimes the larger spots are concentrated about the larger end. The measurements of 50 eggs average 15.2 by 12.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 16.3 by 12.2, 15.2 by 12.8, 14.0 by 12.2, and 15.2 by 11.2 millimeters.]

Young.--Dr. Samuel S. Dickey writes: "Before the set of eggs is complete, or when they are fresh, the parent, as is the habit of our wild ducks, covers the eggs with the lining of the nest, thus rendering them comparatively safe. I have found that it requires on an average 12 days for the eggs to hatch. When the nestlings are about three days old they agitate their heads, wing stumps, and legs and open their beaks and squeak feebly in anticipation of food. They remain in the nest for approximately 16 days. At this age the nestlings, about to be fledglings, look almost like their parents, but a shagginess or somewhat ill-kempt aspect serves to distinguish them. They are without doubt among the handsomest young birds of our mountain forests." He adds that the male feeds the female during incubation and that both parents feed the young.

Dr. Wilbur K. Butts (1931), in a study made in the state of New York of the dispersal of young banded chickadees, found that as a rule the birds wandered only a short distance, a mile or two, from the nest during the first few months of their lives.

George J. Wallace (1942) concluded, from his study of color-banded chickadees at Lenox, Mass., "that young chickadees, though obviously in company with their parents in late summer, tend to wander away from the more sedentary adults in the fall," and that "the Sanctuary flocks were not made up of family groups in winter."

Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The "pale mouse gray" natal down of the young chickadee is soon replaced by the juvenal plumage, or rather pushed out on the tips of these feathers, and wears away. The juvenal contour plumage closely resembles the spring plumage of the adult, but it is softer, looser, and fluffier; the black of the crown, chin, and throat is much duller; the sides of the head below the eyes are pure white; and the under parts are dull white, washed on the sides and crissum with pale pinkish buff.

About midsummer a partial postjuvenal molt takes place, involving the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail. This produces a first winter plumage, which is practically indistinguishable from the fall plumage of the adult.

Adults have one complete postnuptial molt in July and August, which produces a winter plumage that is more richly colored than the worn and faded plumage seen during spring and summer; the gray of the back and rump is more decidedly buffy; the sides and flanks are deep brownish buff in strong contrast with the white of the abdomen; and the whitish edgings of the larger wing coverts, secondaries, and outer tail feathers are broader.

Wear and fading produces a paler plumage in spring, the buffy tints becoming paler and largely disappearing and some of the white edgings in the wings and tail wearing away.]

Food.--Clarence M. Weed (1898), after a careful investigation of the winter food of the chickadee, states: "The results as a whole show that more than half of the food of the chickadee during the winter months consists of insects, a very large proportion of these being taken in the form of eggs. About five percent of the stomach contents consisted of spiders or their eggs. Vegetation of various sorts made up a little less than a quarter of the food, two-thirds of which, however, consisted of buds and bud scales that were believed to have been accidentally introduced along with plant-lice eggs." In his conclusion he says: "The investigations. . .show that the chickadee is one of the best of the farmer's friends, working throughout the winter to subdue the insect enemies of the farm, orchard, and garden."

W. L. McAtee (1926), writing of the chickadee's food throughout the year, says:

About three-tenths of the food of the Chickadee is vegetable, and seven-tenths animal. Mast and wild fruits supply the bulk of the vegetable food. The mast is derived chiefly from coniferous trees, and the favorite wild fruits are the wax-covered berries of bayberry and poison ivy. A good many blueberries also are eaten, but only limited numbers of other wild fruits and seeds.

The important things in the animal food of the Chickadees, in order, are caterpillars and eggs of lepidoptera, spiders, beetles, true bugs of various kinds, and ants, sawflies, and other hymenoptera. The Chickadee certainly consumes a great many spiders (which are moderately useful), but the occurrence seems inseparably connected with the bird's mode of feeding, ever prying as it does, under bark scales and into all sorts of crannies which are the favorite hiding places of spiders. It is just these methods, however, that enable the Chickadee to find so many of the eggs of injurious lepidoptera and plant lice, and scale insects and other minute pests, the consumption of which is so praiseworthy. The good the bird does in consuming these tiny terrors is so great that we must regard as far outweighed the harm done in feeding upon spiders and parasitic hymenoptera. . . .

Codling moths and their larvae and pupae, the larvae, chrysalids, and adults of the gypsy and browntail moths, birch, willow, and apple plant lice, and pear psylla, and various scale insects are eaten by the Chickadee. Among these scales are one affecting dogwood (Lecanium corni), the back-banded scale (Chionaspis americana), and the oyster scale (Lepidosaphes ulmi), which attacks many trees and has been known to kill ashes and poplars in New York.

Among other forest pests attacked by our friend the Chickadee are the flat-headed and round-headed wood borers, leaf beetles, the white pine weevil, nut weevils, bark beetles, tree hoppers, spittle insects, cicadas, leaf hoppers, and sawflies. Other food items of the bird include a variety of beetles, bugs, flies, and grasshoppers, and a few stone flies, dragon flies, daddy-long-legs, millipedes, snails, and small amphibians.

Dr. Dickey writes to Mr. Bent: "I have noticed that chickadees like to draw near hunters' cabins at all times of the year, but particularly during the hunting seasons. They arrive within a stone's throw of the shelters, and will inspect and peck at animal hides, fatty substances thrown out from the table, and even entrails of animal carcasses."

Lewis O. Shelley (1926) writes of a curious and evidently unusual habit that he noticed on a warm day in February. He says: "Flying from the piazza, a Chickadee lit in front of a hive. When a bee came out it snapped it up, flew into an elm, and, holding the bee in its foot, picked it to pieces and ate it. I was alarmed for fear the Chickadee would be stung, but it seemed not, for the act was performed again. Neither was it always the same bird that flew down and got a bee, but many different ones."

J. Kenneth Terres (1940) reports seeing a chickadee eating tiny tent caterpillars, too small to be detected in a stomach contents. He says: "On the morning of April 23, 1938, I again observed at close range the destruction of these caterpillars, this time by a Black-capped Chickadee. . .in a brush-grown field in Broome County, near Nanticoke, New York. When first seen, the chickadee was busily engaged in visiting a number of the newly started nests of the American tent caterpillar located in a nearby wild-apple tree, Malus pumila. Using an eight-power binocular at twenty feet, I observed the chickadee closely while it visited three caterpillar nests in succession. It would first tear open the web, then pick up the small worms (on this date about three-eighths of an inch long and a sixteenth of an inch in diameter) and devour them rapidly."

Behavior.--When chickadees visit our feeding shelves what impresses us most is their quickness. They flit in rather slowly to be sure, for so small a bird, and land on the shelf with a thud, often upright, grasping the edge with their strong little claws and then jerking about with such rapidity that the eye can scarcely take in their flashlike movements. When alarmed they disappear as if by magic--we see only the place where they were--an ability that must save them many times from the strike of a bird of prey.

Another chickadee propensity is the assumption of odd attitudes; they often alight up-side-down on the under side of a branch, making, it seems, almost a back somersault as they reach upward and grasp it; and they can hang, back to the ground, steady and secure, from the tip of a swaying branch. Edward H. Forbush (1907) describes thus some of the chickadee's acrobatic tricks:

I once saw a Chickadee attempting to hold a monster caterpillar, which proved too strong for it. The great worm writhed out of the confining grasp and fell to the ground, but the little bird followed, caught it, whipped it over a twig, and swinging underneath, caught each end of the caterpillar with a foot, and so held it fast over the twig by superior weight, and proceeded, while hanging back downward, to dissect its prey. This is one of the most skillful acrobatic feats that a bird can perform--although I have seen a Chickadee drop over backward from a branch, in pursuit of an insect, catch it, and, turning an almost complete somersault in the air, strike right side up again on the leaning trunk of the tree. Indeed, the complete somersault is an every-day accomplishment of this gifted little fowl, and it often swings completely round a branch, like a human acrobat taking the "giant swing." Although the Chickadee ordinarily is no flycatcher, it can easily follow and catch in the air any insect that drops from its clutch.

William Leon Dawson (Dawson and Bowles, 1909), writing of the Oregon chickadee, a subspecies of the black-capped, gives this lively account of its activities: "Chickadee refuses to look down for long upon the world; or, indeed, to look at any one thing from any direction for more than two consecutive twelfths of a second. 'Any old side up without care,' is the label he bears; and so with anything he meets, be it a pine cone, an alder catkin, or a bug-bearing branchlet, topside, bottomside, inside, outside, all is right side to the nimble Chickadee. . . . Blind-man's bluff, hide-and-seek, and tag are merry games enough when played out on one plane, but when staged in three dimensions, with a labyrinth of interlacing branches for hazard, only the blithe bird whose praises we sing could possibly master their intricacies."

There are many instances recorded of the tameness of individual chickadees. The following, by John Woodcock (1913), is a good example:

Although I had fed the Chickadees in winter for several years, none of them were tame enough to feed from the hand until the spring of 1906. A pair were nesting in one of my bird boxes, and, as I was standing near the nest, one of the birds came toward me. I threw a piece of nut to it, which it picked up and ate. Then I held a piece on my fingertips, and it came almost without hesitation and carried it off; this was repeated several times. Two days later he would perch on my finger and take a nut from between my teeth, or would sit on a branch and let me touch him while he was eating a nut. . . .

He grew very tame that winter, and would often swing head downward from the peak of my cap, or cling to my lips and peck at my teeth. If I held my hand out with nothing in it, he would always hop to my thumb, and peck the nail two or three times, then hold his head on one side, and look into my eyes, as if to ask me what I meant. . . .

I tamed several more Chickadees that winter; eight out of twelve, as nearly as we could count, were quite tame.

It was rather amusing when I took the 22 rifle to shoot rabbits! After the first shot was fired, I was attended by several Chickadees. They made aiming almost impossible, for every time I raised the rifle, one or two birds would perch on the barrel completely hiding the sights.

Many of us have had somewhat similar experiences.

Harrison F. Lewis (1931) describes an extraordinary experience with a chickadee that he believes was not previously tamed. He writes:

On a chilly day, with drizzling rain, about the year 1915, as I was walking on the outskirts of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, I saw a Black-capped Chickadee feeding in a leafless alder bush. There was nothing unusual in its appearance, but the fact that it did not seem to heed me in the least when my path led me within a few feet of it attracted my attention. Wondering a little how near the bird I would have to go before it actively evaded me, I paused a moment, then stepped slowly in its direction. When I had advanced to the outer twigs of the bush in which it was busily feeding, it still appeared unaware of my presence, so, while expecting to see it fly away at any moment, I slowly extended my hand toward it. When my fingers were close to it I suddenly closed them upon it and had it securely in my grasp. The Chickadee seemed greatly surprised at this occurrence and struggled violently for a moment in a futile attempt to free itself, but I believe that my own surprise was equal to that of the bird, for I had confidently anticipated its escape rather than its capture.

When I had recovered a little from the first shock of unexpected success, I began to doubt whether the Chickadee could be in good health. "Perhaps," I thought, "it has from some cause lost the ability to fly." I took it to a neighboring house and showed it to one or two other persons, holding it in my hand all the while, then I carried it to the open door and released it. It flew away at once with strong, sustained flight as though in the best of condition.

On the other hand, William H. Longley speaks of "a chickadee incubating seven eggs which would bite and buffet our fingers if we put them too close, while the mate fed near by, only occasionally raising its voice expressing what may have been an objection to our presence."

The following quotations refer to the roosting habits of the chickadee. Lynds Jones (1910) says: "On numerous occasions I have started them from their night roost in the thick of a leafy grape vine in mid-winter." And Henry D. Minot (1895) recounts the following observation: "February 10th. This afternoon, just before sunset, I noticed two Chickadees, feeding on the ground, and pecking at a bone, to which a remnant of meat was attached. . . . They scarcely left the ground. . .until half-past five, when one flew away over the housetop and disappeared. The other continued to hop about on the ground; and then, without any intimation of his purpose, abruptly flew to the piazza, whither I followed him. He took possession of a Pewee's nest, which stood upon the top of a corner pillar, adjoining the house, and, having stared at me for a moment, tucked his head under his wing, and apparently leaned against the wall. . . . Another retires as regularly at sunset, and sleeps in a hole of a white birch, evidently once a Chickadee's nest, perhaps his own." Eugene P. Odum says:

In fall and winter most individuals roosted in dense conifer branches rather than in cavities. However, during the winter, two cavities were discovered where single birds were known to spend the night.

There was a definite tendency for chickadee groups to roost in the same area each night, so that it was possible to station oneself at a known roosting place and observe the birds coming to roost. The flock was usually scattered, individuals seeking places in the dense foliage of different trees. In contrast with the noisy behavior of many species roosting in flocks, chickadees retire with very little calling or ceremony.

As the flocks break up and pairs form in the spring, the winter roosts were abandoned. During early spring movements the pair seems to roost wherever convenient. After the nesting cavity is excavated and the nest material carried in, the female apparently may spend the night in the cavity even before incubation begins. The male roosts outside in some tree nearby. Likewise, during incubation and the feeding of the young, the female sleeps in the cavity and the male somewhere outside. After the young are twelve days old, or older, the female may remain outside at night. When the young have left the nest, neither they nor the adult birds were observed to return to the cavity. The first night out the young and adults roosted wherever they happened to be.

If we are near a chickadee when it is flitting about in a tree, making short flights from twig to twig, we hear each time it flies a faint, rustling whir of wings, or sometimes two or more whirs, if the distance be longer. This is the chickadee's method of flight--a delicate, quick, flutter, and a pause, then a flutter again. When crossing a wide, open space, the bird flies slowly, undulating in the air a little--each flutter of its wings carries him upward a little way, and during the pause between the flutters he sinks again.

Katharine C. Harding (1932) reports a banded chickadee at least 7 1/2 years old, and Dorothy A. Baldwin (1935) another of the same age. Mr. Wallace (1942) reports one that was 9 years old.

Lester W. Smith, writing to Mr. Bent, gives an instance of the intelligence of the chickadee. He says: "Among the dozen or more species commonly taken for banding in my Government-type sparrow trap, the black-capped chickadee was the only species with instinctive intelligence to remember its way out. This trap, with its entrance under inward-sloping wires, was successful through the failure of most birds to remember just how and where they came in and the confusion that resulted when escape was found impossible in any general direction, particularly upward. The chickadee, selecting a sunflower seed from among the mixed bait in the trap, went in, not to eat the seed there, but to get it out to where it could be opened on a branch. The little bird at its first visit would walk around the trap until the low entrance was discovered, then dart in, select a seed, and, if nothing disturbed it, head back whence it came and with little investigation find its way out. They rarely became confused as did the juncos, tree sparrows, and purple finches. After the first trip in and out the same individual would fly directly to the entrance and as directly out again after he had grabbed the seed. If I shifted the position of the trap on the same spot, or moved it to a new location, the trail was learned after one trial."

Voice.--The chickadee is a voluble little bird; when two or more are together they are full of conversation, exchanging bright, cheery remarks back and forth. The notes show great variety and extend over a wide range of pitch. Some of the minor ones are very high indeed, closely approaching the insectlike voice of the golden-crowned kinglet and the brown creeper; one, the familiar "phoebe" note, an "elfin whistle" Langille (1884) calls it, is a pure, prolonged tone so low that we can imitate it by whistling; others, lower, but high-pitched, remind us of short words or phrases given in a babylike voice.

The simplest of the notes mentioned above is uttered rather listlessly, thus differing from the kinglet's energetic delivery; it is sibilant but given with a hint of a lisp, suggested by the letters sth. It is a faint note, but it may serve to report one bird's whereabouts to another not far away. This note, emphasized and prolonged into stheep, is often given in flight, or when a bird is slightly disturbed. It may be doubled. By further emphasis and repetition into a sharp, rapid series, si-si-si-si, it serves as a warning or alarm note; we hear this form when a hawk comes near.

Of the "phoebe" whistle, Aretas A. Saunders says: "There are two notes of equal length, the second tone lower in pitch than the first. The quality is that of a clear, sweet whistle. The pitch is commonly B-A or A-G, in the highest octave of the piano. Frequently the second note has a slight waver in the middle, as if the bird sang fee-beyee instead of fee-bee. Rarely a bird drops a tone and a half between the two notes." Not infrequently two birds will whistle the "phoebe" note antiphonally, the second bird picking up the pitch at the end of the first bird's song and then dropping a tone lower, i.e., B-A, and the response A-G, over and over again.

It is a matter for conjecture whether the phoebe note is a true song of the chickadee. It is heard oftenest in spring and early summer, but we hear it also throughout the winter, sometimes in cold, inclement weather, and it is uttered by both sexes, according to Dr. Jonathan Dwight (1897). Perhaps the deciding point in determining a true song is the manner in which the bird delivers its notes rather than their beauty to our ears. With this in mind, an observation by Bradford Torrey (1885) seems significant. He says:

For several mornings in succession I was greeted on waking by the trisyllabic minor whistle of a chickadee, who piped again and again not far from my window. There could be little doubt about its being the bird that I knew to be excavating a building site in one of our apple trees; but I was usually not out-of-doors until about five o'clock, by which time the music always came to an end. So one day I rose half an hour earlier than common on purpose to have a look at my little matutinal serenader. My conjecture proved correct. There sat the tit, within a few feet of his apple branch door, throwing back his head in the truest lyrical fashion, calling 'Hear, hear me,' with only a breathing space between the repetitions of the phrase. He was as plainly singing, and as completely absorbed in his work, as any thrasher or hermit thrush could have been. Heretofore I had not realized that these whistled notes were so strictly a song, and as such set apart from all the rest of the chickadee's repertory of sweet sounds; and I was delighted to find my tiny pet recognizing thus unmistakably the difference between prose and poetry.

Francis H. Allen tells me that he has several times heard a chickadee similarly engaged, also early in the morning.

Among the several notes that lend themselves to syllabification is the well-known chicka, dee-dee. Aretas A. Saunders says of it that it "is more variable than many suppose. While it is most commonly one chicka followed by three or four dees, it may vary from one to ten dees, and there are sometimes two chickas. The chicka is, as a rule, two tones higher than the dees, and the pitch is B on the chicka and G on the dees, in the next highest octave on the piano. "

Another pretty note may be written sizzle-ee, or, when it falls in pitch at the end, sizzle-oo. A single bird often gives this phrase over and over, sometimes alternating the two forms, and two birds may make a two-part song of them, singing back and forth. The prettiest note of all, and the most delicate, is a prolonged jingling--as if tiny, silver sleighbells were shaking.

Field marks.--The chickadee is a round, fluffy little bird, boldly marked with splashes of gray, black, and white in contrast to the streaks, lines, and pencilings characteristic of many of the smaller birds. The white side of the head, separating the black areas above and below it, shines out brightly and forms a good field mark even in the distance. The short bill and the fur-coat appearance of the plumage distinguish the chickadee from any of the warblers with their slender bills and sleek, elegant stylishness. And the invisible eye, hidden in black feathers, sets the chickadee apart from the kinglets, even when colors are obscured by the dark shadows of evergreens.

Enemies.--The smaller, fast-moving hawks often capture a chickadee, but the little bird is so watchful for danger and so quick in its movements that it sometimes escapes from an attack. Tertius van Dyke (1913) reports a narrow escape of a chickadee (aided by him, to be sure) from the strike of a sparrow hawk.

The northern shrike, too, is the chickadee's enemy, but it is not always successful. Some years ago I (Winsor M. Tyler, 1912) described a case in which a chickadee out-maneuvered a shrike thus:

Jan. 27, 1910. This afternoon (2 p.m.) I watched for five or ten minutes a Shrike attempting to capture a Chickadee. My attention was attracted by the Chickadee's notes, 'si-si-si-si, dee-dee-dee,' and I found the bird hiding in an isolated red cedar tree, while the Shrike was doing his best to find him. The Chickadee made no attempt to leave the tree, but kept moving about, chiefly among the inner branches. The Shrike followed his prey as best he could through the network of fine twigs, but often lost sight of it, evidently, and, coming to an outside branch, sat quiet, listening.

When hard pressed, the Chickadee flew out and circled about the tree before diving in among the branches again. After these flights, sometimes he entered the tree low down, and then mounted to the very top by a series of short, rapid hops; sometimes, after flying to the apex of the tree, he passed downward to the lowest branches before flying again. Several times the Shrike hovered in the air, and holding his body motionless and upright, peered into the tree. Finally, although not frightened away, the Shrike gave up the chase.

Chickadee's nests are so carefully hidden away, and the entrance is generally so small, that cowbirds rarely find and enter them. There is, however, an instance of parasitism of unquestionable authority. Fred M. Packard (1936) reports: "On May 25, 1936 a Black-capped Chickadee's nest, containing four Chickadee's eggs and two Cowbird's eggs, was found in a nesting box at the Austin Ornithological Research Station in North Eastham, Massachusetts. . . .

"The opening in this box was one and one-half inches in diameter, much larger than the usual entrance to Chickadee nests, and ample to permit the intrusion of Cowbirds."

Dr. Herbert Freidmann (1929) lists another recorded instance from Ravinia, Ill.; an egg was reported to be in a nest of the Carolina chickadee; but the locality would seem to indicate that it was the more northern species.

Harold S. Peters (1936) lists, as external parasites on this chickadee, a louse (Ricinus sp.), the larva of a fly (Ornithoica confluenta), and a mite (Analgopsis passerinus).

Fall.--It is certain that in fall a good many chickadees either migrate or at least wander about extensively. We meet them at this season in localities where they never breed, often in thickly built up sections of large cities. Speaking of the occurrence of chickadees on the Public Garden in Boston, Mass., Horace W. Wright (1909) says: "In the autumn Chickadees are much more in evidence [than in spring], as they quite regularly appear in the Garden and continue their stay into November; and, as already intimated, on two occasions two birds remained through the winter and were seen at intervals up to the end of March. Sometimes small flocks have appeared in October which numbered four, five, or six birds." In September, October, and November I have seen them also in smaller open places in Boston, such as a vacant lot surrounded by several square miles of city blocks.

Dr. Wilbur K. Butts (1931), during an able study of the chickadee by means of marked individuals, attempted to determine the extent of migration of the species in Ithaca, N.Y. Even with the aid of colored bands, the evidence of migration, except in minor degree, seemed not conclusive to him, as his following summaries show. He says:

In considering these evidences of a migratory movement, it should be remembered that even if birds appear to be more numerous during the winter, it is not proved that there really are more individuals present. Many birds are so much more conspicuous in winter than in summer that they may seem to be more abundant. The distributional records show that there is a movement of Chickadees, but it is not proved that there is a distinct north and south migration.

Bird-banding operations at some stations seem to indicate that there is an arrival of Chickadees in the fall and a departure in the spring, but the records have as yet no proof of a distinct north-and-south migratory movement. Published records show only two Chickadee recoveries at points other than the place of banding. These two were recovered at distances of only three and twenty miles. The records do show, however, that there are many permanent resident individuals. The records at most stations do not show whether there are more individuals present in winter than in summer, since at most stations few Chickadees are trapped in the breeding season. Individuals which are recorded only during the winter months may really be present throughout the year. . . .

The records seem to indicate, also, that there are very few birds passing through Ithaca in the fall. Only four birds were recorded but once. It should be remembered, however, that transient visitants are much less likely to get caught than are the resident individuals. Accordingly, there may have been more individuals passing through than the records seem to indicate. All through the fall many unbanded birds, which may have been transients, were seen.

The evidence shows that there were but few, if any, arrivals from the South in the spring. . . .

Since some of the records in the North indicate a greater abundance of birds in fall and spring, it is possible that there is a migration of birds from the extreme northern part of their range, where we as yet have no records, and this may account for the increase in numbers of the Chickadee in the United States.

Additional evidence of southward migration is furnished by the following note by William Palmer (1885): "This bird has been very abundant here [near Washington, D.C.] during March and April, nineteen specimens having been taken, while many others were seen. Owing probably to the severe winter they were driven south, returning about the middle of March. The first specimens were taken on March 15, and others were taken every week until April 19, when six were shot and many others seen. The weather during April was fine and warm, and the birds were singing and appeared quite at home. But few P. carolinensis were seen until the last week in April, showing that they too had been driven much further south."

W. E. Saunders has sent us some notes on the migration of chickadees at Point Pelee from 1909 to 1920, from which it appears that the fall migration there is very irregular. On many days there would be none at all, and then for several days there might be as many as 300 or 400 of these birds. He says: "Usually there are none, but once in a while there is a flight, perhaps (probably) endeavoring to cross the lake; it takes some time to taper off this flight and return to the normal status of none at all. . . . I have always thought this chickadee matter very interesting, and can still remember the first big flight, when, after years of scarcity, all of a sudden chickadees were everywhere; it was fun to watch them down at the last trees, making ineffective little flights up into the air and then settling back into the trees. They had not enough of the migratory instinct to get across. These birds were, doubtless, from stock bred south of the Georgian Bay, and they had never crossed any large body of water."

Mr. Wallace (1941) cites two cases where banded chickadees have been taken at 50 and 200 miles, respectively, southwest of the point of banding; and he says that there are six returns recorded in Washington that might be regarded as long range.

Winter.--Chickadees, collected in small loose flocks, spend the winter roving about the woodland. The birds scatter out a good deal, so much so that they must often lose sight of one another, but they keep continually calling to one another, using their fine, lisping note or the louder chickadee, and thus indicating the direction in which the flock is moving. They seldom wander far from the protection of trees and shrubs but occasionally venture out a little way into a field or marsh if there are isolated bushes there in which they can perch and feed. As the flock moves along, each bird examines minutely bark, twigs, and branches, searching for tiny bits of food--spider's eggs, cocoons, and other dormant insect life. The flocks are not large, being seldom composed of more than a dozen birds, but they generally contain too many birds to represent only a single family.

Whenever we go out in the country we meet these cheery little roving flocks--pleasant companions who enliven the dreary, New England winter. Mr. Wallace's (1941) studies indicate that winter flocks "are remarkably constant in individual composition, the same individuals remaining together day after day through the winter, and, as far as survival permits, winter after winter."

 


Black-capped Chickadee*
Parus atricapillus
Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1947. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 191: 322-338. United States Government Printing Office

 


Return to FAMILIAR BIRDS Home Page
Return to beginning of document