Thursday, December 15, 2016
The cold snap today reminded me of one of our best loved backyard birds, the Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis). The Black-capped Chickadee usually lives more North of here, although they venture into our region during severe cold weather and food shortages. Their energy and resourcefulness, along with some unique biological adaptations, allow them to live in our yards year round despite the weather. In winter, when most other insect eating-birds have migrated, they augment their diet with seeds. People who feed birds are likely to find chickadees to be among their best customers, being particularly fond of black oil sunflower seeds. Feeders can be a real benefit when it gets extremely cold (under 10 degrees F). Chickadees need 20 times more food in winter than summer to maintain their metabolisms, so the extra seed or suet can be a life saver. Finding 60% (the equivalent of 250 sunflower seeds for a chickadee) of their body weight in food each day is not easy. As if planning ahead, they frequently cache food away under loose bark or other nooks and crannies.
Chickadees have several ways of conserving energy in winter. Like most birds, they fluff up their feathers (of which they grow up to 30% more in winter) to trap body-warmed air. They also can reduce their body temperature as much as 20 degrees on winter nights to conserve fat reserves, an adaptive form of hypothermia.
Chickadees are extremely curious and often take unwarranted risks. Bird watchers know that it’s often a chickadee that’s first to respond to the “pishing” call “birders” use to lure birds out into the open. They often lead mixed flocks of birds in mobbing screech owls and other predators as well. Some of their many calls are used to warn each other and even other animals of danger also. Tom Starr, a notable figure in Cherokee history, claimed to have had his life saved when he heard a tsikilili (chickadee) give its warning call. He realized he was being followed and supposedly escaped to safety. To the Cherokee, a tsikilili is considered a bringer of news. I believe Tom Starr’s story. Oftentimes I’ve heard chickadees raising a ruckus and investigated. Usually it was just a cat, but sometimes it was a snake, screech owl, or something even more interesting.
Once I was testing my skills calling turkeys at a park where I worked, when the gobblers I was “talking” to suddenly went quiet. I thought I had hit a sour note when I heard something approaching me. It was a red fox, apparently looking for a turkey dinner. Several chickadees heralded his arrival, and it may have been their calls that saved a turkey’s life. The chickadees got to within a foot or so of that fox (and the fox got within 5 feet of me before I stood up and gave it a good scare), trusting in their quickness to let them get away. With that much commotion and pestering, it would have been hard to sneak up on anything. There are stories about chickadees actually yanking hair from dogs and foxes to use in their nests.
It’s easy to get chickadees to nest in your yard, as they will use just about any bird box, but you can exclude larger birds by making the entrance hole about 1-1/8”. Try putting a box up in February (they may even roost in it on colder winter nights) in an evergreen tree if possible. Six to 12 feet is plenty high. You can increase the chances of getting them to accept your gift by placing some leaves inside, since chickadees often use “house cleaning” as a pair bonding ritual. If you get them to nest, don’t disturb them. You might get a surprise if you do, as female chickadees can produce a scary snake-like hiss. More importantly, you can cause harm by stressing them and it’s illegal to bother nesting wildlife anyways.
Some people have tamed chickadees to the point of eating out of their hands. I once did exactly this. It was amusing to watch them chisel open seeds or try and wrestle them from my fingers when I refused to let go. They seem to pick the fattest seeds first, normally taking them to a more secluded place to actually eat them. Even if you don’t have as bold chickadees as I had, these little dynamos are fun to watch all year long, whether pestering a predator, stealing a tuft of hair from a dog for their nest, or making use of a bird house. Since chickadees can live up to 12 years (though wild ones live much shorter lives) and are so easy to attract, you may want to be a good neighbor and really get to know them.