Black-capped Chickadees: Forest Warriors or Suburban Feeder Flirts?

A Black-capped Chickadee perches on the author's hand.


Black-capped Chickadees are well adapted to life in the woodlands of Oakland County, and are equally comfortable living a suburban lifestyle. The secret of their success is adaptability and inquisitiveness, and during the cold months, a few tricks bestowed upon them through eons of evolution.

Chickadees may be found in any local habitat that has trees or woody shrubs, from our expansive State Recreation Area forests managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, to small brushy areas in our urban areas. During times of heavy snow, they often hunker down in sheltered swamps such as those at Lakeville Swamp Nature Sanctuary and Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary, two of my favorite Oakland County swamps managed by the Michigan Nature Association. When extreme cold grips the landscape, they may hunker down in abandoned woodpecker nesting cavities, knotholes on the leeward side of trees and occasionally excavate their own shelters in soft rotten wood.

Two Black-capped Chickadees perch on low branches.

Chickadees are masters of adaptation and respond to what nature’s way and human behavior offer. Yet a question remains: Are they bold forest warriors, as some purist naturalists boast, or just “suburban feeder flirts,” as others state?

Here’s what I know.

When the snows of winter arrive, as feeble as this winter has been, chickadees seem to favor life in mixed deciduous-evergreen forests, especially near trailside forest edge zones; but perhaps I say that because that’s a habitat I often wander in winter and share their joyful chatty companionship. However, when spring takes hold, the small flocks break up and as breeding season goes into overdrive, the abundance of dead and dying ash trees and hollow stumps beckon. Chickadees are not hesitant to explore nesting boxes on sunny winter days as this motion activated camera dramatically captured earlier this week in northern Oakland County.

The fact of the matter is clear; chickadees are opportunists when it comes to habitat and housing opportunities, and Oakland County is very much their home.

Flocks of boisterous Black-capped Chickadees, also known as a banditry, enliven our winter woods with cheerful sounding chick-a-dee-dee call notes as they flit about from tree to tree to snack on frozen berries, searching out the eggs and pupa of insects and exploring nooks and crannies in search of seeds they cached away earlier. Even a decaying deer carcass is a treat to tear at, a feast sometimes shared with coyotes in the wilder sections of our county. Chickadees, of course, are common diners at bird feeders and display a clear preference for black-oiled sunflower seeds and suet. They provide endless entertainment for humans when they feed on suet, clinging to it sidewise, or sometimes even hanging upside down.

A Black-capped Chickadee perches on clear window feeder.

And for those who may doubt their inquisitive nature, simply find yourself a quiet spot in the woodlands, or near a feeder that is almost empty, and hold your hand out with a handful of seeds. A chickadee may alight near you and cling to a tree twig and watch your behavior to see what you do next. And after it assesses the situation, it just may land on your hand to snatch a seed. The nature trails of Kensington Metropark are a favorite destination for this pastime.

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With a bit of patience, it won’t take long for these inquisitive birds to fly in for a snack anywhere in chickadee habitat, including your own yard. The feeling of tiny claws clinging to fingers or resting on the palm of the hand is unforgettable. Here’s a fantastic slow motion video of hand-landing chickadees filmed at Kensington Metropark and graciously shared by local photographer Jocelyn Anderson. You can view additional videos from Jocelyn Anderson Photography on Facebook.

Winter is taken in stride by these hardy birds, for they are well dressed for the occasion with the ability to puff out their plumage and appear much larger than their actual size. That’s a heat conserving mechanism with air trapped around the downy feathers which increases insulation and prevents the loss of body heat. When darkness falls and the woods fall silent – except perhaps for the hoot of owls and yips of coyotes – they settle in for the evening. Outdoor adventurers, birders and biologists often wonder how these tiny birds do more than just survive in winter – they thrive.

A Black-capped Chickadee puffs out its plumage.

Biologist Susan M. Smith, who studied bird biology and behavior for more than a quarter century at Cornell University and Mount Holyoke College explained it this way to the National Wildlife Federation in a 2007 interview that still holds true: “Carefully hidden food items, dense winter coats, specially selected winter roost cavities and, perhaps most remarkable of all, the ability to go into nightly hypothermia, thus conserving large amounts of energy, greatly increase the chances of survival.” Smith went on to explain that the chickadee’s ability to go into regulated hypothermia – sometimes referred to as a state of torpor – enables it to actually lower its body temperature, in a controlled manner, to about 12 or 15 degrees F below its normal daytime temperature of 108 degrees F. “This allows the bird to conserve almost 25 percent of its hourly metabolic expenditure when the outside temperature is at freezing.” The lower the outside temperature, Smith found, the more energy the bird conserved.

Walk the woods of Oakland County and observant followers of nature’s way are sure to hear their characteristic chick-a-dee call notes as the dawn of February draws near. Some naturalists claim that the intensity and number of “dees” – the end notes of the chickadees call – indicate how dangerous a predator may be. More “dees,” such as in “chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee” would be an indication of a more threatening danger. I remain skeptical of that fact, for I have trudged through cedar swamps thick with chickadees and sometimes the chickadees barely pay any attention and let me pass with just a few cheerful announcements of “chickadee-dee-dee.” Other times, they sound off in a boisterous fashion as if they are locked in a room with dozens of hungry high-strung house cats.

When I hike in winter woodlands I listen for chickadees and let them be my extra eyes. When multiple chickadees gather in one location and are singing their song, I look to see what they see. Chickadees pay close attention to their surroundings and are rarely silent when two-legged, four-legged or larger winged creatures enter their habitat. They may be alarmed at my intrusion, but more likely they are “mobbing” above a perched hawk or owl, or have taken note of an opossum out for a winter’s day stroll, a cat waiting in ambush for birds, or perhaps a fox prowling about for a meal.

A photo of a Black-capped Chickadee standing on leaf and snow-covered ground, taken from above.

Black-capped Chickadees are not just fluffy little suburban feeder flirts and hand-landing acrobatics. They are in fact mighty forest warriors of the wilder side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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