Cheerful Chickadees

Credit: Derrick Ditchburn

t’s a spectacular day in May when a brilliant Western tanager arrives in your garden to feed and rest on its way north. A varied thrush may surprise you with a splash of colour against the drifts of December snow. But through all the changes of the seasons, we can count on chickadees to stay with us. Chickadees are diminutive, at least physically, but they have personalities that are large as life. They are feisty and yet confiding, delicate but undeterred by even the worst weather. Chickadees are familiar birds to all, but in British Columbia it is possible to see as many as four different species, and sometimes two or three in the same backyard.

The bird that gave the family its name is the black-capped chickadee. It breeds across much of North America in suitable wooded habitat. As its name suggests, it has a black cap, with a matching black throat and bright white cheeks. Its upper parts are soft grey-brown with a lighter breast. Its call really does say chick-a-dee most of the year, but in spring the males sing a soft, whistled fee-bee.

The black-cap is the most widespread chickadee in B.C., but it does not occur on the islands or on the north coast. The mountain chickadee is a bird of higher elevations in the interior and southeastern B.C. It looks very similar but can be distinguished by a neat white eyebrow in its black cap. It sings a similar spring song to the black-cap but has a buzzier call.

The boreal chickadee has an obvious family resemblance but is less crisply marked, with a browner cap and greyer face, and it has no spring song. It’s found in most of B.C., except for the southwestern portion, but is less commonly seen.

Along the mainland and islands of the coast, and across the southern portion of the province into the Rockies, is the chestnut-backed chickadee. Its dark brown cap contrasts nicely with its rich chestnut back and flanks. It’s the smallest of our chickadees, but not by much, and its call is a less distinctive but easily recognizable buzzy vee-bee-bee.

Except for the islands and the north coast (where the chestnut-back is the only chickadee you will see), in many parts of B.C. you may encounter two or even three of the species in the same place. Black-caps are a little more aggressive and sometimes keep other chickadees out of their preferred habitats. Chickadees often travel in mixed flocks of birds that forage in similar habitats. These are called “guilds,” and a gang of chickadees may be joined by red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, downy or hairy woodpeckers and golden-crowned or ruby-crowned kinglets.

All our chickadees are cavity nesters, and in the garden most will take nest boxes readily. They like to renovate the place a little, so it helps to fill the box up to the opening with sawdust, which they will “excavate” before they build a nest. (For information on building nest boxes for chickadees, see the Spring 2003 issue of GardenWise.) In the breeding season, chickadees eat large numbers of insects and their eggs and larvae, and feed them to their growing young. They may raise two or more broods in a season as well, so they are a welcome and non-toxic addition to your pest-control program.

These birds are year-round residents, and that means they are equipped to survive everything B.C. winters throw at them. They are tiny birds (each weighs a little more than a two-dollar coin) so how do they survive? At night, they often roost in nest boxes for warmth, and they can reduce their body temperature by 10°C (50°F) in a kind of controlled hypothermia.

But at first light they are afield again, their bright eyes searching for food to keep their little furnaces going. Happy to supplement their wild diet with the offerings at bird feeders, they come readily to suet mixes and are very fond of the small black oil sunflower seeds. Patient feeder operators offering a hand-held treat may enjoy the touch of chickadee feet perched on their fingers.

People often wonder how birds as small as this can maintain such an energy-intensive lifestyle. But the indomitable little chickadees don’t think twice about it. Volunteers at the Rocky Point Bird Observatory on southern Vancouver Island trapped a chestnut-backed chickadee that had been banded in the same location eight years and three months ago – the oldest of its species on record in North America. They seem to be filled with the joy of being chickadees, and their visits brighten a garden in any season.

Well-known B.C. naturalist and veteran birder Bruce Whittington is the author of Seasons with Birds,  recently released by Heritage House.