Black-capped Chickadees Are Cute, Endearing, and Amazing

Black-capped Chickadees

Our barnyard tits are common everyday birds that amaze me.

It almost goes without saying that chickadees are cute and endearing, and it’s fair to call them friendly too, and not just to people with feeders. Northern warblers learn black-capped chickadee vocalizations long before heading south, distinguishing their mobbing calls near owls and sedentary predators (the dee-dee notes increasing as threat level increases) of their high-intensity alarm call (a see) given when the tit detects a rapidly approaching falcon or hawk. Chickadees know the best places to find food, water and shelter and where predators hide. They are found in a wide range of habitats and have no objection to other songbirds and lesser woodpeckers associating with them. Small wonders, warblers, vireos, wrens and other birds that migrate into unknown areas gravitate around chickadees.

Chickadees are among the first birds to discover new feeding stations and are fun to observe, but recognizing unmarked individuals is difficult for us humans. They recognize each other, with each flock organized into male and female hierarchies, with older birds usually being the highest. Daniel Mennill of the University of Windsor and others have learned that there are degrees of intensity in black, white, and gray plumage colors, including some variation in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. Male black-capped chickadees have brighter white feathers, larger black spots, and greater contrast between adjacent white and black areas than females. The highest ranked men have the darkest black caps and bibs.

Chickadees stay in one place all their lives

To study the hierarchy, community scientists as well as professionals record interactions between color-banded birds at feeders. Chickadees are ideal subjects: they are easily and safely trapped for licensed banders, and adults remain in one location for their entire lives, easily observed repeatedly at feeders or nest boxes. And they’re long-lived: at least three banded Black-capped Chickadees were captured alive again and released by banders when they were over 11 years old.

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To survive the frigid nights of northern Canada and Alaska, chickadees “turn the thermostat down” when they perch: their body temperature drops an average of 20°F and sometimes much more. They wake up shivering violently, this muscular action warming them to their normal temperature of around 107°.

Minnesota’s all-time cold temperature record of -60°F was set in the town of Tower on February 2, 1996. A man who studied the forecast spent that night in a well-stocked snow cave to boast of having survived. the coldest night ever, emerging at first light from new cameras and microphones. I watched the evening news coverage, I heard chickadees calling and singing in the background, but no reporters mentioned it.

Several studies have shown that during harsh winters, chickadees with access to feeders have higher survival rates than those without. Even in northern winters, about half of the food chickadees eat is animal – mostly insect pupae and eggs, but also grease from tallow and dead animals they encounter.

Laura photographed this black-capped chickadee, wearing a red colored band and a foil federal band on her right leg and a PIT tag on her left leg in January 2009. Photo by Laura Erickson

How tits remember where they store food

When I worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology from 2008 to 2010, just about every chickadee I saw at Sapsucker Woods had an aluminum leg band, one or two plastic color bands, and a PIT tag ( passive built-in transponder). Feeders throughout the area had RFID readers that recorded the time of arrival and departure of each tagged chickadee, giving researchers more complete information about feeder usage.

The black-capped chickadee’s ability to hide food and remember where hundreds of pieces are hidden is amazing. The tit brain has a large hippocampus for storing spatial memories. Medical researchers have learned that each fall, large numbers of chickadee brain neurons die, only to be replaced by new ones just when they are hiding food at the highest rate. Chickadees may have memorized every crevice of a birch tree, valuable long-term information, but when the tree falls in an ice storm, they can erase those suddenly outdated memories to make way for new ones.

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Even older chickadees add new memories every year, but they retain unused memories for a surprisingly long time. For years I fed mealworms to my garden tits from my home office window, until I spent three winters in Ithaca, New York. As I opened this window on my return, two chickadees flew to my hand.

When I’m down and troubled, I can rely on my garden tits to awaken my sense of wonder and restore my spirit.

This article originally appeared in the ‘The Wonder of Birds’ section of the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching.

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