Jet set at the feeders: black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches

Jet set at the feeders: black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches.

I’ve written posts about the jet set at the feeders before, but I have new photos.

Black-capped chickadee at left above. Tufted titmouse in center. White-breasted nuthatch at right. You can click on them for up-close views. Quite a fetching trio. According to Birds of New Jersey, they are often seen together in mixed flocks, along with downy woodpeckers. I call them the jet set because they grab a sunflower seed and go, unlike the sparrows and finches who sit around the feeder for minutes at a time, chomping away at the sunflower seeds. The jet set prefer to grab-and-go, usually going to a nearby tree to hack the seeds open against a tree branch with their sharp bills or to cache the seeds for later use.


Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are the smallest of the 3 and often the first to find a feeder. Males and females look alike with black caps and throat patches, white chests, and tan bellies. Chickadees have a reputation for being inquisitive and friendly to humans, but I have yet to have one light on my hand or shoulder. That would be fun. According to David George Haskell, in The Forest Unseen, an informative and entertaining book that I highly recommend to all nature lovers, a chickadee needs more than 65,000 joules of energy to keep alive on a winter day. Yikes. 1 oily sunflower seed provides 1,000 joules, while spiders, depending on size, may provide 100 joules. So you can see that staying alive in winter is pretty much full-time work for a chickadee. I’m happy to have that tidbit of information about chickadees because it keeps me motivated on the worst of winter days to get out and fill the feeders. Traveling with tufted titmice also poses problems for the chickadees. Although staying in a small flock provides more security from predators, the larger titmice compete for space at the feeders. I haven’t observed this assertive behavior myself, but it is true that the titmice, while still small birds, are larger than chickadees.

Tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) have large black eyes, small, round bills, and a brushy crest, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. They are gray above and white below with a rusty brown wash down their flanks. They also have a distinctive black patch above the nose. Males and females look the same. Their big black eyes give them an inquisitive air. Like the chickadees, they are at the feeder for a moment in time, so getting photos is a challenge. I’ve noticed recently that the jet-set birds usually do a flyby before they actually land at the feeder. So, when I’m waiting with the shutter half-way down for focusing, if I see a blue-grey blur flash by, I know to get ready for that final click of the shutter. Decent photos of the jet-set birds are cause to celebrate.

White-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) are also small birds, but larger than chickadees and tufted titmice. They are slate gray with a white face and belly. Males have a black cap and nape, while females have a gray cap and nape. I’m wondering if the nuthatch at left above, as well as at top on the right, might be a female, while the nuthatch at lower right might be a male. It’s hard to tell for sure. None of the jet-set birds come to the feeders in pairs, but I think they all have mates, as would be their custom.

The best feature of the white-breasted nuthatch photos above is the clear view of the extra long hind toe claw, which, according to Birds of New Jersey, is nearly twice the size of the front toe claws. This long hind toe claw gives nuthatches their agility to hop head-first down tree trunks in search of insects.

Also according to Birds of New Jersey, the name nuthatch comes from the Middle English nuthak, which describes the bird’s habit of wedging a seed into a crevice and hacking it open.

Shortly after I wrote the above paragraphs, I noticed 2 white-breasted nuthatches skipping down the trunk of the old pear tree, probably looking for insects. One had a lighter cap and nape, so there’s a pair of nuthatches for sure. Perhaps if I watch more attentively, I will observe a chickadee pair and a titmouse pair as well.


Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) often join the jet-set flock, although they stay around for longer periods of time, mostly at the suet feeders. Downy woodpeckers are small, albeit larger than the jet-set birds. They can be distinguished from the almost identical but larger hairy woodpeckers by the size of their bills. The bills of downy woodpeckers are about equal lengths from the tip of the bill to the eye and from the eye to the back of the head. As can be seen in the above photo. The bills of hairy woodpeckers are much longer so that the length from tip of bill to eye is longer than the length from eye to back of head. Below is a photo of a hairy woodpecker from a year ago. I have many more photos of downy woodpeckers as they seem to be more common at the feeders.

I should mention as well that both the downy woodpecker above and the hairy woodpecker below are females since the males of both species have red marks on the nape of their necks.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology has online courses in bird identification where I learned these size strategies. First, in identifying a bird, determine its size using a bird you know well for comparison, maybe a robin, a crow, an eagle, etc. I think of this as the bigger-than-a-breadbox strategy. As more birds become familiar to a person, the sizing becomes ever more accurate. The second nifty strategy is to compare parts of the bird proportionally, such as the bill of the downy woodpecker above. The Cornell Lab lessons use the bills of the downy and hairy woodpeckers as an example of this technique.

Honestly, I don’t have keen enough vision to do this kind of identification by just watching. I’m not all that comfortable with binoculars, or perhaps I just don’t have a good enough pair of binoculars. However, the camera is my entry into bird ID-ing. With photos to compare with bird guides online or in book form, I’m making progress in identifying the common feeder birds in my garden. It’s the truth that each bird, butterfly, tree, flower, or even weed that I have identified and become familiar with has made my time spent in nature more intimate and enjoyable. That’s been my experience.




One Comment on “Jet set at the feeders: black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches

  1. Pingback: American goldfinch: common bird with unique characteristics – daysingarden

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