Chickadees—or what are called “Tits” in the rest of the world—are a beloved group of birds wherever you go. Although often subtle in color, they are quite familiar to most because they are regulars to most people’s garden and feeders. They also occur in wild forests, deciduous or coniferous. Wherever you go, you can see them, or at least hear them; they are named after their “chick-a-dee-dee” call.
Chickadees travel in family packs, often with other species of birds. These mixed flocks move through trees covering hundreds of yards in circuits. Try to keep following them if you can and they will invariably lead you to lots of other species that travel in mixed flocks such as warblers, kinglets, and vireos. For many of us, we always follow the sound of chickadees because they are the indicator for locating other species.
For those of us naughty enough to imitate Eastern Screech-Owl, a ticked-off chickadee will start scolding back and everything will come and take a look at you—and you them. Owls eat other birds, so birds will come to mob it hoping it will leave; the chickadee’s scold just heightens the tension. Yes, they are quite feisty and if you have one in the hand it will always give you a few bites to let you know what they think about it.
Chickadees flit from branch to branch, and acrobatically hang upside down at all angles as they grab seeds and berries. They also hunt insects and spiders. Their legs are short and sturdy; feet are particularly strong, and this allows such agility. Watch them carefully in your garden and appreciate just how nothing is safe wherever it is. They are also fun to watch coming to feeders. You can see them doing a route, flying to a convenient halfway house fairly close to the feeder, perching for a few seconds before jumping on the feeder. They don’t mess around, grabbing a seed and flying off to a perch to tackle it.
Chickadees have fairly short, rounded wings and long tails. These are features for great agility in tight spaces, and the tail acts like a rudder for steering on a boat. Having long, pointed wings is an adaptation for flying very fast like falcons and swallows, and is suited to travelling long distances on migration.
In Cape May we only get one type of Chickadee, the Carolina. In North Jersey, the Carolina Chickadee is replaced by the Black-capped Chickadee. Both species are very similar with black caps and bibs, white cheeks, grayish upperparts, and pale underparts. Black-caps are noticeably larger with broader white edges to many of the wing feathers.
The two species ranges rarely overlap. Where they do in central Jersey and Pennsylvania, research over two decades has shown a couple of interesting things. The hybrid zone, only about 30 miles deep, has moved noticeably further north in sync with climate change. Secondly, you might think that hybridization would be the big (male) Black-cap with the smaller female Carolina Chickadee. It’s always the opposite; the little male Carolina having his naughty way with the big female Black-cap. Go figure. You can speculate on why that is.
Birds that spend the year here have to be adaptable to take advantage of whatever food is most easily available at any time. The Carolina Chickadee is certainly that. They seem to keep their same appearance year-round. However, if you look a little closer there are subtle changes through the year. Birds molt in late summer after they breed. By then, after wearing these same feathers for nearly a year, they tend to be really drab and grubby. As the old feathers are pushed out of its sheath, the new feathers grow in. Look carefully and you will often see chickadees in late summer with the outer feathers shorter than the central ones as they grow or molt in. Juveniles, with their hurriedly grown feathers (the nest being the most dangerous place for young birds), also show wear quickly and can also look really drab. By fall, adults and kids all have spanking new feathers and look dapper—just as any bird with as much character as the Carolina Chickadee should. ■