The Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee. Photo: Brian Morin

By Brian Morin

An inspiring Canadian

If you were to ask someone to pick a favourite bird, there is a good chance the answer would be the chickadee. That is not surprising, because this little marvel has so many things going for it and it’s with us the entire year.

Its tiny stature, oversized head and natural curiosity make it seem ‘cute’ to almost everyone. Its disposition is upbeat, its calls inviting, and it can often be found living not far from people.

In fact, it is a species found at most bird feeders. All of this makes it the perfect ambassador welcoming newcomers to the world of birding. The number of people who were bitten by the birding bug after encountering chickadees and went on to develop an interest in the hobby, must be incalculable. I have brought numerous people into the fold this way, including students up to high school age, who may have thought it wasn’t cool (or whatever the vernacular is these days) to express an interest in nature. Bring along a little sunflower seed, stretch out your hand and watch the magic begin.

Even toddlers will express exuberant delight seeing birds coming in for a closer look. Hold out their open hand with a few seeds and see what happens. They may pull back at first if one perches briefly to retrieve a seed, but they will eventually warm up to the idea, if not on that trip, on a future outing. Trust me; they will soon be asking for more.

While we tend to focus our attention on such interactions, the Black-capped Chickadee’s story is itself a special one. For one thing, this little bird is our neighbor. It lives here year-round, although each fall some will migrate a little further south. You are likely to encounter them on most excursions into the outdoors, even in the depths of winter. This is often the first bird (maybe the only bird) you will find on trails on some bitter days in January and February. How can such a tiny species be such a bundle of energy, enthusiasm and goodwill under those conditions you might wonder? It puts many Canadians to shame — those who grumble about the weather from November until May.

Well this little Canadian is indeed very special, and very smart. It is so smart that it is likely to beat most of us in a game of ‘guess where I hid the food’. Its ability to recall where it has cached food in the crotch of a branch, under a piece of bark or in any of a hundred other locations, days later, is incredible. I know I’d lose. This skill is crucial, because in winter the days are shorter, so there are fewer hours of daylight to gather food.

Black-capped Chickadee. Photo: Brian Morin

That’s where feeders come in. Birds do not feed exclusively at feeders. They balance our handouts with what can be found in nature’s pantry. It has been calculated that the percentage of daily intake gathered at feeders by many types of hungry birds, may be lower than 20 per cent. My guess is that in Canada, during winter it is higher, but still does not represent the primary source of nutrition.

Black oil sunflower seed is the number one food recommended not only for chickadees but for a wide variety of species, particularly finches. This seed has more nutritional value, with a higher oil content than striped sunflowers and more than mixed seeds. Here is a breakdown. It contains 28 per cent fat, 25 per cent fibre, and 15 per cent protein — as well as calcium, B vitamins, iron, vitamin E and potassium. Maybe we should be recommending it for our own diet!

If you watch what chickadees do when they come to a feeder, most of the time they will grab a seed and immediately fly off. Finches, on the other hand, will crack open seeds on the spot and consume the ‘meat’. Continue watching after the chickadees leave and if they are hungry, they will find a perch and balance the seed between their toes and crack open the hull. Energy from the seed not immediately required by the body will be stored as fat, which will serve as a fuel reserve for those cold nights.

But they don’t stop there. They will continue to gather food as long as there is daylight and will cache unneeded seeds here, there and everywhere. That is why having such a good memory is essential to their survival.

To further enhance their ability to make it through our winter, the chickadee’s body temperature lowers by 10 to 12 degrees Celsius during sleep, so that it requires less energy to keep warm. Coupled with the insulating factor of air trapped in fluffed up feathers, these little guys will make it through the night on their own while we are safely tucked away indoors. Tomorrow is another day in the life of the chickadee.

Brian Morin is the publisher of Ontario Birding News, a newsletter for birding enthusiasts. He has been actively involved in watching and photographing birds in Ontario for more than 40 years.