Summit Outside: One cute little bird
Black-capped chickadees are probably one of the most recognized birds and are frequently depicted on Christmas cards sitting on snowy branches. They are undeniably cute birds with their large rounds heads and small bodies, black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray back, wings, and tail and whitish underside with buff-colored sides. They are very acrobatic and inquisitive and can often be seen hanging upside down as they forage for food or catch insects in the air. They frequent bird feeders, and many people are delighted to have them eat from their hand. Not only are they cute, but they have a cute name which apparently came from their call: chick-a-de-dee-dee or dee-dee-dee.
Black-capped chickadees are found throughout Colorado. There is also a different species of chickadee, the mountain chickadee, which can be distinguished from the black-capped chickadee by a black band across the eye and a longer beak. The black-capped and mountain chickadee have been known to cross-breed, which can make it confusing to birders. The highest concentrations of black-capped chickadees can be found at elevations from 5,000 to 9,000 feet, especially in the northwestern part of the state. They winter throughout their range, and they do not migrate. We see them often from our windows in Breckenridge, flitting among the branches.
Ornithologist have studied the call of the black-capped chickadees, and they make alarm calls triggered by small, dangerous raptors which have a shorter interval between “chick” and “dee” and tended to have extra “dees,” usually averaging four instead of two. In one case, a warning call about a pygmy owl contained 23 “dees.”
How do these little birds stay warm in the coldest winter nights, like the ones we experience in Summit County? One way to stay warm is to stay dry. They have a preen gland at the base of their tail, and they use their beaks to squeeze oil from the preen gland and carefully preen their feathers with the oily, waxy substance. This keeps the feathers flexible, waterproof, and inhibits the growth of fungi and bacteria.
The chickadee’s feathers provide the insulation that helps keep body heat in and cold air out. The outer feathers have barbs that connect much the way Velcro does, providing a windproof barrier and underneath are soft, fluffy down feathers. During the winter, the chickadee produces more feathers for warmth. On a very cold day, a chickadee fluffs up its feathers, thus creating more space between the feathers to trap air, which also provides insulation. The other way they stay warm is to group together in logs and cavities and use their collective body heat to warm the air around them. During the winter, they can also lower their body temperature at night and enter a state of controlled hypothermia, which slows the blood flowing to the parts of their body, thus saving energy.
Like a little ball, these small birds have a high surface area to volume ratio. In order to maintain their body temperatures, chickadees must take in a large number of calories and must eat continuously during short daylight hours to keep their metabolic furnaces going, or they will not have enough heat energy to see them through the long winter night.
Chickadees have a diet that consists primarily of insects, fruit, and seeds but during the winter, fruit and some insects become scarce. In order to assist with winter foraging, chickadees have a beak well adapted for cracking small nuts and coniferous tree seeds, which are high in fat and oil content and are available year-round. During the winter, they store food in caches for later use. Retrieval of stored food requires that each bird have an updateable “map” of its home range in its brain so that it remembers where it stored its cache.
Chickadees are monogamous and stay together for several years. In the spring and summer, nests are excavated in soft decayed wood of dead trees or branch stubs 1 to 10 feet above the ground. They prefer old aspen or old cottonwoods with a firm outer shell and rotten inner wood. Both birds are involved in evacuating a nest site, but only the female builds the nest. She will bring in a variety of plant fibers, hair, mosses, feathers and insect cocoons to line the nest. The female will lay five to 10 white eggs with brown spots and incubate them for 11 to13 days and remains on the nest with the young until they are about 12 days old. The male is responsible for feeding the young chickadees until they fledge, at about 16 days. Both parents will then continue to feed the young for up to four weeks after they leave the nest.
Chickadee lovers have established websites where people can share their stories about hand feeding and observing chickadees. One is http://bit.ly/ibktmU . Many people put up backyard houses for chickadees to build their nests in. There are stores which specialize in selling chickadee paraphernalia and a various books written about chickadees; one cute one is called “Emily The Chickadee.” There is a poem in “Cinderella or, the Little Glass Slipper” which starts:
Little darling of the snow,
Careless how the winds may blow,
Happy as a bird can be,
Singing, oh, so cheerily,
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at
Rutgers University. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.
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