Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).


Here is a jet-setter of the feeder birds, for sure, grabbing-and-going after a second at the feeders, making it hard to take a non-blurry photo. Therefore, I’m quite proud to finally have a few photos of one chickadee who decided to stay a moment longer than usual.

Chickadees are reported to be quite social with humans, coming to perch on shoulders or eat from human hands. This has not been my experience thus far, but be sure that I will report the occasion when it occurs.

According to both Birds of New Jersey and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, central Jersey is the southern edge of the black-capped chickadee’s year-round territory. They are non-migratory. Central Jersey is also the northern edge of the Carolina chickadee’s territory. When reporting chickadee sightings to Project Feederwatch, I am instructed to put them into a Black-capped/Carolina category, since cross-breeding has made it impossible to distinguish one from the other in this particular area of New Jersey.

In an extraordinary book titled The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, David George Haskell has an information-packed chapter on Carolina chickadees in a small patch of Tennessee’s old-growth forest. His narrative, called “The Experiment,” starts on a bitterly cold day in January when he decides to take off his clothes to try to understand how the chickadees experience the cold. After enduring uncontrollable shivering and encroaching numbness for a minute of time, he dresses as quickly as he can and moves around rapidly to restore the body heat he so quickly lost. Always an intrepid observer of nature, Haskell starts to compare his experience with that of the chickadee.


The chickadee’s insulating feathers are its first line of defense against the cold. Its second is its ability to shiver, just as Haskell did, but much more effectively, using its flight muscles, which are one-quarter of its body weight, something humans don’t possess in proportion. Its last line of defense is its food supply, which is the same with all species.

Here is where Haskell’s narrative gets really fascinating and will keep you filling up those bird feeders in the coldest, most blustery conditions of the winter.


Chickadees need 65 thousand joules of energy on a winter day to stay alive. Yikes. One black-oil sunflower seed has a thousand joules or thereabouts. A large spider 100 joules; a beetle 250 joules, and so forth. Even with access to dependable feeders during the cold months, which some don’t have, how do chickadees manage to get that much energy every day.

For one thing, Haskell reports, chickadees see better than we do. They have more receptors to see detail we do not see; they also have better color vision, which allows them to see insects and fruit that would be invisible to us. Their bodily agility allows them to put this superior eyesight to good use by checking out tree limbs from all angles, finding insects that other birds may have missed. This may be true for all the jet-set of bird feeders–white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, probably woodpeckers as well. Perspective is indeed all.

Haskell also considers the pluses and minuses of traveling in a mixed flock of birds. More eyes ensure more safety from hawks, for example, but a hierarchical society will keep subordinate birds from getting enough food. Since tufted titmice are larger, they tend to muscle out the smaller chickadees. The young and the failed breeders are at a disadvantage in a flock’s pecking order. Haskell figures that half the chickadees do not survive the winter.


One last bit of information from Haskell. Each Carolina chickadee requires three hectares of forest to sustain itself. So, I need to figure out what a hectare is and how my garden fits into the adjoining parks to make up this amount of forest.

If this is interesting to you, get Haskell’s book. He still has a web site too, I think. I haven’t checked in a while. But, frankly, the book is several levels of complexity better. I’ve given the bare details of his chickadee narrative here. There’s much more entertaining and informative detail about chickadees and about nature in his book.

My resolution. I will always keep those feeders full of sunflower seeds for the chickadees.

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