ALWAYS IN SEASON: Chickadee is a familiar, but secretive bird

The black-capped chickadee is probably the most familiar bird of northern winters. It's common and easily recognized by sight and song. The chickadee is also bold and apparently fearless. This is one of a very few species of wild birds that will ...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

The black-capped chickadee is probably the most familiar bird of northern winters.

It's common and easily recognized by sight and song.

The chickadee is also bold and apparently fearless.

This is one of a very few species of wild birds that will take food from a human hand. Chickadees also will respond to whistles and tweets that humans give, and they'll approach quite closely.

All of this makes the chickadee among the best loved of our birds.


Chickadees are small birds, smaller than house sparrows. They are patterned in black and white on the face, with gray on the back and buff on the belly.

The facial pattern is distinctive. The cap and bib are black and the cheeks and shoulders are white.

The chickadee's winter call is easily recognized, too. It gives the bird its name.

Despite all this, however, the chickadee is not as well understood as it might seem to be.

Although it is a winter houseguest, coming eagerly to feeders, it is a summer hermit, seldom seen during the breeding season.

Chickadees announce the advent of spring with another distinctive call, a whistled "phee-bee." This is an advertisement, announcing the male bird's territory and calling for a mate.

Once this stage in the chickadee's life is passed, however, the birds become secretive. Chickadees are cavity nesters, usually in dead trees in pretty heavy timber, and they are seldom seen during nesting season.

Yet they are widespread in North America.


Black-capped chickadees nest from coast to coast to coast and from Kansas to the tree line.

In our area, they occur everywhere there are trees, including isolated farmyards and shelterbelts, even those that are miles from any other stand of trees.

Chickadees are curious, and they often approach hunters, hikers and others who use the woods.

They are social creatures, too, usually occurring in small groups. Often, these include birds of other species. The call of a chickadee in a quiet woodland can indicate the presence of a "bird party," sometimes containing a number of species.

This sociability suggests an abundance of courage.

Chickadees don't back down to larger birds. Instead, they boldly mingle with species much larger than themselves, including grosbeaks and starlings.

The appearance of a hawk or a cat, however, sends the chickadees diving for cover.

Like other winter birds in our area, chickadees are seedeaters, and they seem to be especially fond of black-oilseed sunflower seed. Sunflower seed is inexpensive, high in calories and thus makes the best all 'round food for winter birds in our area.


Although chickadees have been regular at our feeders this year, they have been outnumbered by another species that isn't so often identified with winter.

The number of American goldfinches has dropped since the snow and cold arrived last week, but they are still more numerous than chickadees at our feeders.

These are not the familiar yellow-and-black birds of summer, however. The chickadees are in winter plumage, which is of a greenish cast. The best field marks are the white bars on the wings.

Goldfinches can be recognized by their undulating flight and the sweet, high-pitched whistles that they give, especially in flight.

Snow buntings have become abundant in open country. These are the most common birds along roadsides and in open -- often quite barren -- fields.

Unlike chickadees and goldfinches, snow buntings are strictly migrants here. They come south with winter weather and move north early in spring.

So far, snowy owls seem to be scarce this season. Some years, snowy owls are abundant, but so far this season, I've had only a few reports -- and to my disappointment, I haven't spotted one myself.

It's a different story with the other open-country raptor. The number of rough-legged hawks seems higher than in many years.

This large hawk is distinctive in several ways. It shows white on the rump while it flies, for one thing, and black in the elbows of its wings.

It also is the only large hawk that can hover for any length of time.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald. This column appears Sundays on the Outdoors pages.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

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