“Spring is coming,” someone whistles over my head. “Spring is coming.” I take a step closer and someone hops down to a lower branch, cocking his head to see me more closely with his bright black eyes. “Dee-dee-dee,” he scolds. The cat beside me lashes his tail and looks up eagerly, but the chickadee is unconcerned. “Cheeky bird,” he calls. “Chick-a-dee-dee.” And with a light flit and a bounce, he flutters away.
If I was going to compile a list of favourite birds, chickadees would surely be on it. These cheeky, boldly patterned black-and-white birds are among the most familiar backyard visitors where I live, and – along with American Robins – are likely one of the first birds I learned to identify. Their chick-a-dee-dee calls ring out year-long from the hawthorns at the end of our yard, while their whistled notes (which to me sound like someone whistling the phrase “spring is coming”) are one of my favourite signs of the season. Described in my field guide* as “friendly” and “cheerful”, chickadees seem bolder than other birds, unafraid to land relatively close to me or even to one of the cats – although of course they know very well just how much space to leave to enable them to flit away again when necessary.
Two chickadee species are common around here: the familiar Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), found throughout much of North America, and the Mountain Chickadee (P. gambeli), found only in the West. Black-capped Chickadees prefer semi-open habitats, such as mixed and deciduous woods, thickets, and forest edges; backyards often fit their requirements well. Mountain Chickadees, however, tend to prefer dry coniferous forests at higher elevations, but they will also visit backyard feeders, especially in the winter, when they descend to lower elevations in search of food.
Chickadees eat insects, insect eggs, spiders, berries, seeds, suet, and even carrion. They’re acrobatic birds, and can easily hang upside down from the ends of branches while foraging in trees and bushes. When they visit the feeder, they usually don’t linger, but seize a seed and carry if off to a branch, where they hold it with their feet and break the shell open with their beak to get to the seed inside. Often, they’ll then fly off with the seed to store it for later. They eat more seeds in the winter, and more insects during the summer; Mountain Chickadees in particular are helpful in controlling insects that can kill trees, such as bark beetles.
Chickadees may nest in natural tree cavities or old woodpecker holes, but they can also (as tiny as they are) excavate their own holes in trees, as long as the tree is well-decayed. And they will nest in bird houses; for the last two years, we’ve had Black-capped Chickadees nesting in one of the bird houses that we originally set up for tree swallows. They’ll also use tree cavities and dense conifer foliage for roosting at night and during the winter; these environments provide essential insulation to protect them from the cold temperatures.
One thing that I find most interesting about chickadees is their presence in mixed-species flocks that form during winter. These flocks may include many other small birds, such as other chickadee species, small woodpeckers, nuthatches, brown creepers, kinglets, warblers, and vireos, but the chickadees often form the nucleus of the group. By joining together, the birds can feed more efficiently and and be better protected from predators. More birds can find more food sources, and because each species eats slightly different foods, an individual faces less competition than it would if it were in a flock of only its own species (where everyone is eating the same thing). And more birds means more eyes watching for potential predators. Chickadees may be especially good at avoiding predators, as most of these other species will recognize and respond to the chickadees’ alarm calls. (This article explains all of this in more detail.)
The more I discover about chickadees, the more fascinating they become. Although they may seem like just another group of small, cute birds, they are clearly important to many other species – from the other birds who form flocks with them in the winter, to the many insects they eat (helping to control the insect populations), to the plants whose seeds they help to disperse. And yet I still love them as well for their cheery calls, bright curious eyes, and active personalities, all of which help to make chickadees one of my favourite groups of birds.