The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) is a common bird to our area, as well as a great portion of the Midwest down to south Texas and east to central Florida up to central New Jersey, and non-migratory so we see them year round. They are part of the perching songbird family called Paridae which consists of about 55 species that includes the Tufted Titmouse.
We have a fairly large number of Carolina Chickadees and they are easily recognizable. This small, acrobatic, social bird has a black crown, white cheeks, and black bib. Its back and tail are gray and it has a white belly with pinkish flanks. Male and females are almost identical so, for most observers, you would have to notice activities specific to the gender to tell them apart. Their “chickadee-dee-dee” alarm call is also very recognizable. The more “dees” at the end of this call determines the threat level. In fact, if you notice mobbing behavior with the scolding call from Chickadees, you might check to see if you have an owl, hawk, or snake nearby. The other familiar call of the Carolina Chickadee is the “fee-bee fee-bay” call of a male looking for his life-mate.
It’s hard to imagine such a tiny bird being able to survive the cold temperatures in some areas that it winters. When he perches, the Chickadee will fluff up its feathers with air to form insulation to keep its body warm. These birds are also capable of lowering their body temperature to stay in a state of hypothermia to conserve energy. On cold nights Chickadees, perhaps along with other birds like the Tufted Titmouse, will find cavities in trees or snags or empty birdhouses to huddle together in for warmth. You may notice a Chickadee with a bent tail at your feeder in the early winter morning from being wedged in a small space with other birds the previous night. The tail will eventually go back in place. Most importantly the Carolina Chickadee has a high metabolism and depends on finding food in the winter to burn for energy to produce heat. The sunflower seeds and suet at backyard feeders in the winter is so important as a winter food source for Chickadees and other small birds. Chickadees are the nucleus of mixed winter flocks that bring a variety of birds to your feeders including the Tufted Titmouse, Kinglets, Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Warblers.
The Carolina Chickadee will not eat the the seed while sitting on your feeder. It will take a seed and fly up to a branch to peck open the shell. The Chickadee is also a hoarder. It caches shelled seeds, berries, and mealworms short term for an easy snack. In addition, during the fall it will cache seeds in hundreds of places in preparation for winter. Chickadees have keen spatial memory for locating these stashed foods. In fact the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls long term and spatial memory, of a Chickadee actually enlarges during the fall and winter when he or she needs to locate this stashed food and it reduces in size when the weather warms and the cached food is no longer needed.
In the summer Chickadees become insect feeders. The extra protein from caterpillars, insects, and insect larvae is needed for nesting. Chickadees are cavity nesters. The female chooses a small natural cavity, abandoned Downy Woodpecker cavity, or will, with the male’s help, excavate a new cavity in a dead snag or rotten branch. She might also use a nest box. The female builds a beautiful nest using green moss and some coarser materials, but then fashions a depression and lines it with soft materials like fur, hair, and soft plant fibers. The clutch is 3 to 13 very small white eggs with fine brown dots. The female stays on the eggs the entire incubation period of 12 to 13 days while the male brings her food. Interestingly, the female will hiss and bang her head on the nest and cavity sides to scare away would-be predators. Once the chicks hatch, both parents feed the hatchlings. The chicks leave the nest 16 to 20 days after they hatch and the parents continue to feed them for up to a week after they leave the nest.
Because of banding, it is known that Carolina Chickadees can live up to 12 years. They are monogamous and the male and female remain together through numerous mating seasons. Also, Carolina Chickadees are so similar to Black-capped Chickadees that even they can’t tell each other apart. As a result, there is some hybridization of the species.
Although numerous and frequent visitors to your bird feeders, the Carolina Chickadees are beautiful and amazing small creatures that are far from common and uninteresting.