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On the Wing

With winter once again upon us, there are at least two things we can all guarantee and expect...lots of cold snowy weather and a visit from the Black-capped Chicadee.
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With winter once again upon us, there are at least two things we can all guarantee and expect...lots of cold snowy weather and a visit from the Black-capped Chicadee. Either in your treed garden or a brief walk around the neighbourhood, the chicadee is one of the few birds that can live in our province all year long. They can be very tame and can often be seen at birdfeeders during the long winter months. They will even feed from your hand and they have become well adapted to survive any harsh winter.

This hardy songbird is easily recognized with its black cap on the head and bib. White cheek patches are obvious whilst the back is mostly grey and its breast off-white. The chicadee is readily identified by its calls, the most often heard is "chic-a-dee-dee-dee-dee". Another call is a high-pitched whistle that sounds like "fee-bee, fee-bee" which I thought at one time was a territorial call but now I learnt not so. I also think it is a contact call or maybe an alarm signal? It is possible that this call gives info about the callers identification and let others know that the caller has seen the presence or even the identity of another flock.

These small birds prefer to live in deciduous and mixed forests, as well as wooded urban areas such as parks, river valleys, cemetaries and our own backyard. They prefer to nest in abandoned tree cavities and birdhouses. They have one brood per year and it usually takes about 15 days before the young leave the nest. 6 to 8 white eggs seem to be normal, the female stays with the chicks as the male brings the food...insects, berries and seeds. But with the onset of winter, insects and other foods can become sparse.

While most small birds migrate south, the chicadee is busy preparing for winter. In these long cold days, this bird has to work extra hard in order to survive. During very cold days, I have noted that a chicadee will spend up to 20 times longer at a feeder than on a typical warm summer day. Like the magpie, this bird will collect and hide seeds in a variety of secret caches. It has been observed that chicadees also have other ways to survive the cold weather. They will often appear larger in the winter than in the summer months because they will fluff out their feathers to create an insulating layer. During cold spells, they will cuddle up together in order to keep warm and protect themselves against predators.

I have read in one nature magazine that this bird has the ability to go into regulated hypothermia which enables it to actually lower its body temperature, in a controlled manner, to about 12 or 15 degrees F below its normal daytime temperature.

The Edmonton Nature Club had an interesting talk on the chicadee a few years back and a local U of A grad had discovered that one chicadee family was spending the nights in a sort of snow hole that existed at the base of a tree.

There is plenty of chicadee research on the internet so if interested do some googling. I want to thank Nature Canada for some of the information in this article.

Bob Parsons,

ENC.