The Amazing Chickadee

by Jim D'Angelo


The black-capped chickadee, (Parus atricapillus) is probably the bird
that I see the most during my travels through the woods. Whether it’s during
summer walks, fall hikes, at the bird feeder in winter or when I’m just out and
about, the chickadee always seems to be close at hand. I usually take the time
to observe the flock as we pass. They never fail to delight me. Chickadees are
the nucleus of the mixed flock they travel in. I have seen tufted titmice, (Parus
bicolor
), downy woodpecker, (Picoides pubescens), white-breasted
nuthatches, (Sitta carolinensis) and even a warbler or two mixed in with
the chickadees.

The black-capped chickadee is easy to recognize with its black cap and throat
contrasted by white cheeks. Its wings and back are gray and its sides are buff
in color. It is about five inches long and weighs about 1/3 of an ounce, that’s
less than the weight of two quarters. It has two common and cheerful songs;
chick-a-dee-dee-dee and feee-bee-ee with the first note higher. It is much
easier to find this bird by its song as your walking through the woods than it
is to try and locate it by sight.

Once you locate a flock it is very easy to bring them closer to you by
pishing that is by vocalizing pishhh-pishhh-pishhh. This takes advantage of the
chickadees curiosity and is a wonderful way to see them interact with each other
and observe their flocking and feeding behavior. The chickadees curiosity and
mixed flock are two of its well-known attributes, but there are several other
less known that lend more character to this little bird.

One of the more unusual behavior traits is something called Batesian mimicry,
in which a prey species mimics the appearance or behavior of a predator, or a
distasteful or hard-to-catch prey. The viceroy butterfly, (Limenitis
archippus
), looking like the monarch butterfly, (Danaus plexippus) is
a well-known example of this mimicry. The chickadee takes another route in
imitating a predator. When threatened in the nesting cavity chickadees may hiss
and sway then lunge at the intruder like a snake striking. This will hopefully
startle the intruder enough to make it retreat to find easier prey.

One of the more amazing survival adaptations the black-capped chickadee
possesses is the ability to go into a state of regulated hypothermia, in which
it lowers its body temperature from a normal of around 108F to about 88F. This
means the chickadee needs much less energy reserves to get it through a cold
night. When the air temperature is around zero degrees Fahrenheit the chickadee
needs to consume about 60% of its body weight in food, for a person weighing 160
pounds that would translate to about 90 pounds of food. When the air temperature
gets around -20 degrees F, which it has come close to this winter, the chickadee
stops foraging because it would be using more energy to find food than it would
be getting from it. This is where the regulated hypothermia comes in handy
otherwise the chickadee would not survive until the weather warms. As it is,
about 70% are not alive one year after hatching. Studies have shown that
chickadees build up fat reserves during the day to help them get through the
cold winter nights. That combined with the regulated hypothermia make it
possible for the chickadee to be a year round resident of central New York
State.

There are many more interesting behavioral and survival traits the
black-capped chickadee possesses from its flock social structure and floaters to
its nesting habits. You might want to explore them this winter while you watch
the birds at your feeding station. There are several books and websites you can
use to expand your knowledge during those cold winter days while you sit inside
and watch the cheerful chickadees flutter about.