The Chickadee - a True Survivor

One of the most popular birds at any winter feeding station is the Black-Capped chickadee.

Unlike other birds that migrate south to escape the bitterly cold temperatures,  Black-Capped chickadees remain in the northern climate where they must endure food shortages and frigid life-threatening temperatures.  Like all wild creatures though, these birds have developed some miraculous adaptations for survival.

During spring, summer and fall their diet consists almost entirely of seeds and insects, yet in winter this food supply is drastically reduced. In order to compensate for the reduction in food and the cold temperatures, they begin to double their reserves of body fat in the fall so as to be able to better withstand the colder temperatures. Chickadees also conserve their energy during winter nights by digressing into a dormant state in which their body temperatures can dip 10 to 13 degrees Celsius below their active daytime temperature of 42 degrees Celsius.

During winter, chickadees will also consume large amounts of fat (suet) and meat when it is available and they will feed off a dead animal such as a Deer or Moose.

Black-Capped chickadees are also experts at caching seeds under the bark of trees or in other tight spaces when an abundant food supply is located, storing them for when food may become scarce. This behaviour is often observed at bird feeders that are regularly stocked during The winter months. Try watching a particular chickadee at your bird feeder and you may notice it pick up a seed and immediately fly off to a ' nearby tree where, chances are, it is hiding the seed for a future meal.

In many of my articles I stress the importance of dead trees and their role in the forest ecosystem. These dead trees supply food for some birds and animals and shelter for others. The chickadee is one such bird that often relies on dead trees for shelter.  On winter nights, chickadees reduce heat loss by seeking sanctuary in old nest holes in dead trees or the deep oblong holes made by pileated woodpeckers which help to protect them from the elements.

Chickadees prefer tree holes that have been previously occupied by other birds because they are usually lined with feathers and other nesting materials. This is an added bonus for a chickadee struggling to stay one step ahead of winter's ever-present death grip.

Remember to fill your bird feeder on a regular basis. Many birds will come to rely on it as an important food supply until spring. Birds whose food supplies are suddenly cut off, especially in the depths of winter, often face an untimely death unless' another steady food source can be found within a relatively short period of time.

Chickadees also possess other survival characteristics which tend to lean more towards their social, as well as communicatory adaptations.

In terms of their social behaviour, and in preparation for the winter, they begin to come together in flocks that range in size anywhere from about 5 to 12 birds. Studies indicate this to be the most common size of a-flock, but this is not to say that larger flocks do not exist.

These flocks are made up of older, paired birds and juveniles that all work together to defend their territory (a few hectares in size) from other invading flocks.

As with other animal groups, hierarchy is established in which sex and age are the determining factors. Male chickadees rank higher than females and adult paired black-caps rank higher than individual juveniles.  This hierarchical arrangement has nothing to do with ego or equal rights.  Rather, it is designed to afford that species the best chance at survival. Creatures that have adopted this sort of survival adaptation, such as wolves or lions for example, have done so strictly because they have discovered that working together greatly increases their chance for survival. Although chickadees are a long way down the food chain, they have found that safety in numbers works well.

There are a number of reasons why chickadees flock together during winter, and one of them is to look out for danger. Hawks, owls, and weasels will make a meal of a chickadee, given their high numbers in wooded areas.  They are also prime targets when visiting the bird feeder.

One day last winter, I witnessed something streak past my picture window, only to realize a few seconds later that a hawk had plucked a chickadee off our bird feeder. By the time I got around to where I could see the bird feeder, nothing remained but a few feathers floating on the breeze.

In any event, despite this occurrence, it is still easier for a flock of chickadees to use the "many eyes" method of detecting potential danger and escaping, than it is for a single bird to do the same.

Additionally, while in a group, each individual bird can reduce the time it spends scanning for danger and spend that time foraging for, or eating, food.  Chickadees communicate with each other through several different calls announcing sex, rank, the threat of danger, breeding territories, and contests for food.

The most popular of these calls to us though, is the melodious and pleasant chick-a-dee-dee song that is often heard in the woods. But what exactly is the bird trying to communicate when it sings this song? The answer to this is not a simple one, although research suggests that it is used in a number of situations such as when a bird is separated from its flock, when the flock is assailing a predator, or it might be used when the birds are trying to recognize each other.

These cute, fragile, chunky little black and white birds are well adapted for enduring the harsh Canadian winters and are a lot tougher than they appear.


© Copyright 2010 Bill Leeming - All Rights Reserved