This has been a good winter for those of us who love cold and snow. It has also been a good winter to observe birds at the feeder. Winter birds are some of my favorite and I enjoy watching them steal seeds from the feeder and hang upside-down from the suet block. Tufted titmouse. Northern cardinal. Downy and Hairy woodpeckers. Nuthatch. Blue jay. During the cold snap (one of the cold snaps, anyway), a Red tailed hawk visited our feeder. Of course, it wasn’t interested in the seeds and suet. Turns out it was very interested in one of our chickens. It was reluctant to give up an easy meal, but the hawk flew off angrily with an empty stomach. The chicken survived and our breakfasts have remained tasty!

Black-capped Chickadee -- Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada -- 2005 December Source: Wikimedia Foundation
Black-capped Chickadee — Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada — 2005 December
Source: Wikimedia Foundation

A frequent visitor to our backyards and winter feeders, and perhaps my favorite visitor, is the beloved Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). This small, well-dressed bird sports a prominent black cap and “bib” accented with white cheeks and underparts. The back and tail is slate gray and a patch of rusty brown marks its flanks. Chickadees are commonly found in deciduous and mixed forests, open woods, parks, thickets, and disturbed areas.

Chickadees are active and acrobatic birds that often associate in flocks with woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, vireos and other small woodland birds. Curious and social birds, they are not easily scared away. With patience, you can even gain their trust and they may eat out of your hand. Despite their social behavior, they seldom perch near one another while feeding.

Chickadees are cavity dwellers. They seek small natural cavities and abandoned Downy Woodpecker holes in dead snags or rotten branches where they excavate the cavities to meet their needs. These nests can be near ground level or up to 65 feet high, although 5 -20 feet high is most common. Chickadees will use nest boxes and seem to prefer wood shavings or sawdust (rather than empty).

Males and females share the role of excavating a cavity, although the female usually selects the nesting site. Once the nest chamber is hollowed out the female builds the cup-shaped nest in the bottom of the cavity. Coarse material, including dry grass, moss and soft leaves, serve as a foundation for the next layer, while rabbit fur and spider webbing provide a soft lining to the nest. In spring or summer, the female will lay a clutch of white eggs with reddish-brown spots or dots that are about the size of a dime. They hatch in 12 or 13 days.

Food for thought

As with most birds, Chickadee diets shift throughout the year. During spring, summer and fall, insects, spiders and other small animals make up nearly 90% of a Chickadees’ food intake. In winter, their diet consists of about 50% seeds, berries, and other plant matter, and 50% animal food (sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses). Chickadees are one of the easiest birds to attract to feeders and will frequently visit window feeders. A variety of seeds, including sunflower and peanuts will draw them to your backyard. Suet, peanut butter, fruit and mealworms can serve as special treats for cold winter days. It is helpful to provide perching shrubs near feeders. Interestingly, the Black-capped Chickadee has a habit of hiding seeds and other food items to save for a meal later. Food items are placed in a different spots and the chickadees can apparently remember thousands of hiding places.

Cold winter? No problem

Adult chickadees don’t migrate. They manage to survive in northern climates throughout the winter by entering a state of torpor to conserve energy. Although rare in birds, Chickadees have mastered this cold weather survival strategy. They drop their body temperature by as much as 22°F from their normal temperature (about 108°F) on cold nights.


Did you know…

The familiar chickadee-dee-dee call easily identifies Chickadees when alarmed. Did you know that the more dee notes in the call, the higher the threat level?

There are many good resources to learn about observing and feeding birds, as well as their natural history. One of my favorite sites is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds website (


More Nearby Nature

Portage Parks Volunteer Chili Dinner – February 21 (6:00pm)

Nearly ½ million people visit Portage Parks each year. Over 14 miles of bike trails and 1,300 acres of land throughout the county provide wonderful natural space. Now, Portage Park District is hoping to get the support it needs to open additional park land to the public, develop more trails and enhance public programming. Voters will be asked to pass a 0.5-mill levy on May 6. If you would like to help the campaign, please plan to attend the Volunteer Orientation Chili Dinner on February 21 (6:00pm). For details, phone 330.569.6003 or email