Bird Files: Diet Lessons from the Chickadee

  • This year-round resident is found throughout Pennsylvania except in the southeastern and southwestern corners. Photo: Minette Layne

March 21, 2014

This is the first in a series of The Allegheny Front's segments called Bird Files, with research and writing by regional bird experts. 

Black-capped chickadees are tiny but tough. At less than half an ounce, they’re one of the smallest birds to survive in northern areas during the winter. It takes a lot of body fat to keep warm, so chickadees spend most of the daylight hours feeding on seeds, berries, and occasionally fat from animal carcasses. Then, on winter nights, they drop their body temperature to conserve on fuel. This is like you turning down the thermostat in your house at night. Still, they lose about 10 percent of their body weight each night . If you were on the “chickadee diet," you’d go to bed weighing 130 pounds and wake up at a slim 117.

In the morning, chickadees get back to feeding. By the end of the day, they are bulging with fat to help them make it through another night.

Chickadees are communicators—the number of dees in the chick-a- dee-dee call is an indication of danger. A predator that is not much of a threat might get a chick-a-dee-dee while a call of chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee, would be a major threat. In the spring,  the “Hey sweetie” song of the male chickadee establishes his territory and invites a female to share it with him.

If you want to invite chickadees into your yard, trees, shrubs, and fallen logs, will provide food and nest sites. Evergreens provide winter cover.

As the name suggests, the black-capped chickadee has black feathers on the top of its head. It’s an active, acrobatic gray bird that is a frequent visitor to bird-feeders. This year-round resident is found throughout Pennsylvania except in the southeastern and southwestern corners, where it’s replaced by Carolina chickadees.

Image of Brittingham with a chickadee, circa 1990s, courtesy of Margaret Brittingham.

Bird calls from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recorded by Matthew Medler and Martha J. Fischer.