Grays Harbor Birds: Black-capped Chickadee

No bird is as familiar to this area as the Black-capped Chickadee, and just about everyone knows them and recognizes their familiar call of “chickadee-dee-dee.” They are definitely one of the favorites of many, and yes, even “cute.”

If no crows are about in the morning, this is the first bird I usually see in my yard, already hard at work on the feeders I leave out overnight hanging off the upstairs fascia. That feeder is out of reach of the raccoons and deer, holds two pounds of black-oiled sunflower seeds, and is a sturdy mesh they can cling to and pull seeds out of the openings. It is a very busy feeder, hosting not only the black-cappeds but also several other locals. If the feeders are out of food, these little birds just go on to their regular feeding spots, gleaning bugs from the leaves and trees, and seeds from anywhere they can be found. Here is more information for you to read.

Size: 5 1/4 inches long, with an 8-inch wingspan, and weighing approximately 0.40 ounces.

General Description: The Black-capped Chickadee has a short neck and large head, long, narrow tail, and a short bill. It has a black cap, white cheeks, black throat, a white breast, and buffy sides, common to both adults and juveniles.

Habitat: Black-cappeds are generally found in mixed or deciduous woodlands, which is why we see so many here. They adapt well to our patches of woods, parks, yards, wetlands, willow thickets, and disturbed areas.

Behavior: In the winter, they form flocks that may include Chestnut-backed Chickadees, juncos, various sparrows, finches, and even kinglets and nuthatches, but they are typically the dominant species, and territorial during breeding season. They forage in alders, evergreens, and birch for both bugs and for seeds, and may even be seen hanging upside down off the tip of a branch. They also hover and fly out to catch aerial prey. But where they are easiest to view is at backyard feeders, whether for seeds or suet. They cache (store) food in the fall and retrieve it up to a month later.

Diet: The majority of their diet is insects, spiders, seeds, and berries when available. I like to give them a choice in their suet feeders, with berries in the suet. In the winter half of their diet is seeds and fruit. During the warmer months, they prefer caterpillars. They have even been documented scavenging fat from carrion. They seldom remain long at a feeder, but grab a seed and go elsewhere to either eat it or stash it for later.

Nesting: Black-capped Chickadees are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. They nest in cavities formed by woodpeckers or natural causes, or even nest boxes. Both sexes will even excavate their own cavity in rotten wood or enlarge one that holds promise for a decent shelter, but only the female builds the nest, a foundation of moss lined with hair. She incubates 6 to 8 eggs for 12 to 13 days, while the male brings her food. After they hatch, the female alone broods the young for the first few days, then the female joins the male in providing food. The young leave the nest at about 16 days, but stay in the territory for another 3 to 4 weeks before they are ready to head off on their own.

Migration Status: Depending on food availability, most Black-capped Chickadees are permanent residents; they may move around in the fall to find food, but generally are able to stay in the area. Some populations from farther north may migrate to other areas due to a shortage of food in their breeding territories.

Conservation Status: Widespread and common throughout their range, Black-capped Chickadees still must compete with forestry practices (eliminating snags) for existing cavities of soft and rotten wood for their nests. That appears to be their only man-made problem, as they seem to be able to coexist with humans in every other area. Developments and clear-cuts have resulted in more habitat, and our feeder stations draw them in large numbers. If we can just leave some snags for them in our forest edges or around our neighborhoods they will do fine. I also have some nest boxes for their use.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Although they are not as common as their Chestnut-backed cousins, Black-cappeds can be found everywhere around the Harbor, especially at feeders. They are a joy to watch, and their cheerful voices make my heart sing.


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