Interview with a Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Amelia: Hey there, do you have time to chat?

Black-capped chickadee: Can’t stop…must…cache seeds!

A: I happen to have some sunflower seeds right here.

C: Well, when you put it like that…

A: What did you mean by caching seeds?

C: Caching just means hiding food to find and eat later. For example, squirrels cache nuts. I’m not eating the seeds that I grab from your hand. I’m actually hiding them in little holes or under tree bark. I’ll come back and get them later this winter.

A: Do you remember where you put them?

C: Of course I do! I can remember where I hid thousands of seeds. I’m not some silly squirrel, after all.

A: Wow! That’s amazing.

C: Well, I’m pretty motivated. I have to survive -40 C Canadian winters, after all.

A: That’s right! How do you do that without central heating and hot chocolate?

C: With difficulty. I puff out my feathers. This traps warm air next to my body, like your long underwear does. I also sleep away the winter nights in cozy burrows in rotten logs. At night I’ll drop my body temperature 10-12 degrees Celsius to save energy. It’s called regulated hypothermia.

A: Brr, I get chilly when my thermostat goes down 2 degrees!

C: That’s because you’re a weak human. Grow some feathers.

A: Whoa, that was uncalled for! I am generously sharing my sunflower seeds with you, after all.

C: Sorry. I tend to get aggressive in the winter. It’s the only way to survive in our gang.

A: Wait. There are chickadee gangs?

C: Yep. You could call them flocks, but gang sounds cooler.

A: I guess so. So how many birds in your gang?

C: This winter we have five. Two mated pairs from last year and one baby. We also have a few nuthatches and woodpeckers , but the hierarchy doesn’t apply to them.

A: Why would other birds join your winter gangs? Are chickadees really that cool?

C: Of course we are! We know this patch of forest like the back of our wing. Sometimes migrating birds will hang out with us because we know where the food is and they don’t. Just because we’re aggressive doesn’t mean we can’t be helpful.

A: Why are you so aggressive?

C: The gang runs on a strict pecking order. If you’re the meanest you eat first and have the safest nesting places. The meanest chickadee is the most dominant. Generally males and older birds are the most dominant.

A: Okay. Where do you stand in this pecking order?

C: I’m the most dominant male, of course! I keep everyone else in line. In the spring I’ll pair up with the dominant female. Since we’re well fed from being mean all winter, our babies will have a better chance of surviving.

A: Are you looking forward to spring?

C: To be honest, not really. Raising babies is exhausting. Did you know we feed those buggers 6-14 times every hour? It’s ridiculous if you ask me.

A: How many chicks do you usually have?

C: My mate will lay 5-7 eggs. If they’re not eaten by snakes, weasels or even squirrels and chipmunks, we’ll have that many nestlings to feed and change.

A: What do you mean by change? They don’t wear diapers, do they?

C: We have to clean their poop out of the nest. Believe me, they produce a lot.

A: Ah. Do you feed them seeds?

C: Nope. About 80-90% of our summer diet is insects. Insect eggs, insect larvae, insect adults, we eat it all! We’re natural pest control for the forest trees. In the winter 50% of our winter diet is still insects.

A: Wow, I can’t imagine finding insects in winter.

C: I know, I’m pretty amazing. Not to mention cute.

A: Yep, and that’s why people feed you in the winter. You have it pretty good.

C: Yep. Thanks for the sunflower seeds! I’m off to put a juvenile in his place.


About Amelia

I am a recent biology graduate and current journalism student exploring career opportunities in science communications.

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November 2014


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