Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Why the Chickadee Deserves a Place on the Favorite Bird List

Black-capped Chickadee
I was asked recently what my favorite bird is. Before I could answer, the interrogator said, “My favorite bird is the chickadee.” Implicit was a challenge that dared me to disagree. I always dance around that question, even if no one is challenging me. There are just too many birds out there to narrow the choice down to one.

That said, a good argument can be made for the chickadee being your favorite bird, and one of my favorite birds.

“Chickadee” is the common name given to a group of birds which talk with one another, and occasionally to us, with some variation of “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” There are seven chickadees in North America, all in the Genus Poecile. Three are found in eastern North America. The Carolina Chickadee is the southern species which ranges about as far north as southern Pennsylvania; it has not been recorded in Vermont. The Boreal Chickadee is the brown-capped inhabitant of northern boreal forests. It is uncommon in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. On rare occasions during the winter it may roam as far south as my neighborhood in southeastern Vermont. “Our” chickadee in New England is the Black-capped Chickadee.

Back to my interrogator who immediately followed her declaration by adding,  “They stick around all year.”

Very true.  The Black-capped Chickadee is a year-round resident. I have long suspected that the chickadees which I feed in the summer are more or less the same chickadees which I feed in the winter. Then I stumbled on a chickadee account, drawn from good chickadee studies, which told me that in the fall chickadees form flocks of three to twelve individuals, stake claim to a twenty acre feeding area, and pretty much stay in that area until the hormones start flowing in the spring. This all but confirms that the chickadees which came to my feeder this morning are the same ones that have been coming since the first snow flew back in late October, and maybe before that. They are tough little birds.

Chickadee feeding on web-worms
Chickadees rarely move very far from where they were hatched. Over 60,000 Canadian banding records collected from 1921 to 1995 show that 90% of recaptured birds show no movement. When there is movement among the chickadees, it almost entirely young birds, though a severe food shortage may also cause movement by older adults.

However, there must be additional reasons for claiming the chickadee as the favorite bird than their every-day-of-the-year presence in our neighborhoods. Remember that House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons also maintain a year-round presence, and they do it even on the barren concrete and asphalt streets in the downtown. The House Sparrow and pigeon are hardy winter residents and survivors through the worst New England winters, just as are the chickadees. But, no one in their right mind would place either of these non-native birds anywhere close to a list of favorite birds much less name either as a favorite bird.

What is it then that would justify someone naming the chickadee as his/her favorite bird?

First, I have to admit to what I have written in the past. I have two chapters in my book, “Tails of Birding,” which argue that we should never call a bird “cute.” I have received lots of friendly flak for those essays, but I stand by them.  (I suggest you beg, borrow, or buy the book and find out why “cute” should never be applied to a bird.)

However, I have never considered consistency as a virtue. The chickadee can qualify as your favorite bird because it is so darn cute. It has one of the perkiest, most endearing personalities of any creature I know, feathered or not. When I put seed out in the morning, I hear a thank you “chick-a-dee-dee” as soon as I finish and return to the house. “Thank you” seems to be fading from the vocabulary of my own species. If I am late putting the seed out, I am greeted with a scolding “chick-a-dee-dee,” but it is then followed by the thank you.

Chickadees are curious little birds. Sometimes I will stand in the woods or near a thick tangle on a roadside. I won’t hear or see a single bird. Then I begin to “phish, phish, phish.” In moments, chickadees are coming near to check things out. They may bring a few friends, like a woodpecker, or a nuthatch, but they lead the way. They come close to check out the source of the phishing. Am I friend or foe? Could I possibly be food? Their response when they see me will explain why they are not my absolute favorite bird. When they see me they utter an exasperated “chick-a-dee” and fly off. It is as though they were saying, “Oh, it’s just you.”

Toward many people, chickadees are very friendly, almost tame. They will land on a head. They will eat out of a human hand. I have never had one do that, probably for two reasons. I have never taken the time or had the patience to establish that kind of a friendly relationship. And I have cats. They are indoor cats, but they like to sit on the kitchen table and watch the birds come to the bird feeders, especially the window feeder. When the chickadee lands on the window feeder, it can see the cat inside. That presents a barrier to a close chickadee-human relationship. How can any bird trust a human which would tolerate a cat? Chickadees are bright little birds.

When a hawk is in the neighborhood, Blue Jays raise a racket. They send out the alarm. So do chickadees. They don’t have the vocal capacity of the jays, but they are right there with their warning calls: “ChickadeedeedeeChickadeedeedee.” Chickadees not only call in reinforcements; they get right into the fray. They join the jays in harassing the hawk.

I once watched chickadees raise the first alarm on a Cooper’s Hawk, a bird eating predator and chickadee enemy. They were joined by a flock of jays and a couple of woodpeckers. A Cooper’s Hawk stands about 16.5 inches and weighs 1.0 pound. The Blue Jay stands 11 inches and weighs 3 ounces. The chickadee is 5.25 inches in height and tips the scale at about 1/3 ounce. The chickadees led the first attack.  They ceded their field position (or is it aerial position?) as soon as the gang of jays arrived, but who can blame them. The woodpeckers rattled alarm from the safety of a tree trunk. The cardinal hid in the bushes and the doves flew off across the river. You have to like the chickadees; they are bold and gutsy.

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” is not the chickadee’s song; it is the chickadee’s call. It is the everyday language used to talk with its own kind, share food sources, tell of dangers, and thank me for finally putting out the seed. On mild winter days, and when spring finally makes its fitful appearance, the chickadee begins to sing. The song consists of a low, sweet, whistled “phe-be,” or “fee beeyee.” It is easy to miss the song.

Chickadee emerges from its nest hole in a tree trunk
Chickadees are cavity nesters. They use old Downy Woodpecker holes. If they can’t find a woodpecker hole, they make their own nest hole in an old tree trunk. They have small, delicate beaks, so the tree has to be soft and well rotted. I have found chickadee-excavated nests a couple of times. Neither nest was reused a second year; the old tree had fallen over. They also like bird houses. Over the years I have had a number of chickadees raise families in my boxes. The preferred size is a wren box with a 1.25 inch entry hole. Unfortunately, House Wrens take exception to chickadees using their boxes and will evict them. When you clean out your nest boxes in the fall, you will easily see the difference between chickadee and wren nests. Chickadees build a neat, moss-lined nest, very precise and almost fussy. A wren nest is a messy jumble of sticks, as though they barely cared.

Chickadees are socially monogamous. They form a pair bound, often in the fall or early winter and stick together throughout the nasty winter weather. In the spring they share nest building and they raise their broods together. But when the hormones begin flowing in the spring, fidelity gets washed away. He cheats on her, and she cuckolds him. Watch the chickadees in mid-April as they race around the bushes, shrubs and branches. Everybody is trying to get a little on the side and keep someone else from getting a little on the side, and everybody is getting some on the side. After a long winter staring at the cabin walls, the chickadee sex races are marvelously entertaining, and so accessible. You have got to love them for welcoming spring with such consumptive horniness.

Chickadee opens a sunflower seed
If you take the chickadee as your favorite bird, you can make a good case for you choice. Edward Howe Forbush, the New England ornithologist, would agree: “The little Black-capped Chickadee is the embodiment of cheerfulness, verve and courage. It can boast no elegant plumes, and it makes no claims as a songster, yet this blithe woodland sprite is a distinctive character, and is a bird masterpiece beyond all praise.”

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” Translated, that means good birding.


  1. Well said Chris! All reasons why the Chickadee is one of my favorites.

  2. Exquisite. This post is packed with great information and photos. Thanks for this thorough article.

  3. I agree that this is a great article about the beloved Chickadee.

    Now how do you tell a Black-capped from a Carolina? The Carolina says chick-a-dee-dee-y'all. Really.

  4. Great post on a wonderful bird Chris.

  5. Love, love, love chickadees...!!!

  6. Thank you so much for your recent stop on my blog, very much appreciated~
    I am really glad fo it, otherwise, I might not have known to visit here and right on time too. I would not say that the Chickadee is my first favorite, yet it certainly would be close to the top. I would have to do more study to choose my absolute favorite. We have so many Chickadees and I am never quite certain if ours are the Black-capped, or Carolina, but I sure do love having them right outside my door! I enjoyed very much your images as well as your fun way of writing about what you have shared.

  7. What a wonderful and informative essay! I learned so much! I love this little bird also but like you, it is hard to pick just one for a favorite!