When last we checked in with the Black-capped Chickadee family, there were 4 live chicks and an egg.
About a week after hatching, the chicks were beginning to look more like birds. Feathers were growing down their backs and starting on their wings. Although their eyes wouldn’t open for another 4 or 5 days, they were already starting to preen like adult birds. Clearly this is an innate behavior in chickadees as there’s no way they could mimic what they couldn’t see either parent do.
While only the female Black-capped Chickadee incubates the chicks, both parents are active in feeding. As mentioned previously, sometimes the male will also do some mate-feeding, which the female then passes along to the chicks. The mystery of what the parents were feeding became clear as I saw the chickadee parents on my suet feeders often. Sometimes though I caught sight of them feeding a moth or a caterpillar. More and more, the female would tip herself beak down into the nest after feedings and poke around. I believe this was so she could expand the nest to accommodate her growing brood.
By week 2, the chickadee chicks were starting to look more like chickadees and were getting more vocal, clambering to be the first to get the food offered by their parents. Due to the small confines of the nest, they would often lay on top of one another seemingly without much of an issue. I thought this made sense because I thought they also roost together to keep warm in winter, but apparently unlike other birds like bluebirds, chickadees roost singly.
Most of the literature I’ve read says that Black-capped Chickadees take 16 days from hatching to fledging, but on day 15, other than exercising their wings a bit, they showed no real hurry to fly. Granted, this may be due to a late snow that occurred right around the stated fledge date, although chickadees fledged on day 19 at this nest in New York, which the author notes is the average for their yard.
May 25th, day 20, was the appointed day. The chicks were VERY busy hopping around the box and flapping their wings beforehand. Probably because they had some extra days to prepare, they fledged in quick succession. All but one chick had fledged by the time I got outside with my camera around 8am.
While the parents flitted around, calling encouragement, the chick would hop up to the hole, stretch out and look around for a few seconds, calling back, then disappear back inside. Finally, the chick decided to take the plunge and jumped out of the hole, fluttering the few feet into the nearby aspen saplings.
I haven’t seen the chicks since, but I’ve seen adult chickadees, presumably the parents, at my feeders. I can only hope the chicks are doing okay, though the fledgling period is the most dangerous for young birds. If they have survived, they’ll be just about ready to leave their parents and go off on their own; Black-capped Chickadee fledglings typically only stay with their parents for about 10 days.
And now, the mystery of the egg. When I cleaned out the box, the nest was pretty dirty and unkempt, but I didn’t initially see the infertile egg. Feeling the nest though, I definitely felt something hard. Sure enough, mama chickadee had buried the egg deep inside the nest. With their small beaks, I suppose this was more efficient than trying to pick up the egg and remove it from the nest as the Northern Flickers did.
Good luck, little chickadees! I hope I see you again even if I don’t recognize you!
It’s only been a few days, but life moves fast when you weigh less than a slice of wheat bread! Ultimately, Mama Chickadee had 6 eggs and on May 6th, 4 tiny little Black-capped Chickadee babies hatched out.
Like with the flickers, at least one of the egg shells was eaten by the female. Birds probably eat egg shells to obtain minerals like calcium. Waste not, want not! Eating leftover egg shells also helps clean up the nest, which is important when space is at a premium, as it is in any cavity.
Both mom and dad chickadee are working hard to feed their new family with sometimes both parents in the box at the same time. At times, the male feeds the female as well. She solicits food by making a high-pitched chattering and shivering her wings. It’s hard to tell what they’re all eating, but it looks like soft-bodied insects, possibly larvae or caterpillars.
The chickadee chicks are a lot quieter than the flicker chicks. Sometimes they don’t perk up for a feeding until the parent makes a soft “dee dee” call.
Sometime late on May 6th or maybe early in the morning on May 7th, a 5th chick hatched. Sadly, the chick didn’t even last a full 24 hours. Sensing something wrong, Mama Chickadee managed to pick the chick’s body up and flew away with it somewhere. She probably dropped the body somewhere a good distance from the nest to keep predators away from her doorstep.
As of today, there’s still one unhatched egg in the nest. I suspect it’s infertile and won’t hatch. I’ll be watching to see when the parents remove it. It might take awhile though; the unhatched flicker egg stayed in the nest up until fairly close to fledging.
I put up a new chickadee box this year. It’s deeper than the previous one so the camera fits inside the box rather than a hole having to be cut through the roof of the box to accommodate it. Almost immediately after putting it up, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees started checking it out, so I’m glad I got it up before April!
Like with my flicker box, I put a handful of wood shavings in the chickadee box. This simulates a natural cavity. While they’re not nearly the pecking powerhouses that woodpeckers are, chickadees can and do excavate their own cavities if the wood is soft enough. However, chickadees are considered secondary cavity nesters, moving into cavities after the original tenants have moved on.
Much smaller than Northern Flickers, and more vulnerable to competition for nests and to predators, chickadees won’t just dump wood chips right outside their front door like a flicker will. Both male and female chickadees take a beakful of chips and fly a short distance away, scattering them. This prevents rivals/predators from following the wood chips like a trail of breadcrumbs straight to the nest site.
On March 31st, after they had “excavated” the wood chips, the female chickadee went to work building her nest. Only the female Black-capped Chickadee builds a nest, which she does starting with a thick layer of cushy moss. Following the moss, she began to bring in softer material. I recognized dog fur and, I believe, some leftover fluff from when my milkweed went to seed last year. With each new addition to the nest, mama chickadee would build up the nest cup and then wriggle her body down into it, conforming it to her body.
Like I mentioned, chickadees are small and vulnerable. They have little defense against the invasive House Sparrow, a species known to kill native birds and then take over their nest cavity. To combat that possibility, I put a metal 1 1/8 inch hole guard over the 1 1/4 inch box entrance. Black-capped Chickadees are small enough to still fit through the hole, but House Sparrows aren’t.
Check out this video of mama chickadee’s “snake display” warning away a (likely) House Sparrow intruder. Without the added protection of the hole guard, this display may not have been enough to deter a persistent nest parasite.
The literature I’ve read suggests that it can take up to 2 weeks for a Black-capped Chickadee to finish building her nest, with egg laying following 1-2 days later, but this particular female seemed to take a bit longer. It wasn’t until April 18th that she laid her first egg and, even then, she was still bringing in the occasional bit of fluff to pad out the nest.
I can only assume her first egg was laid on April 18th because Black-capped Chickadees, like many other songbirds, lay an egg a day and I noticed that there were 2 eggs in the nest on April 19th. As of April 21st, there are probably 4 eggs in the nest. Why can’t I tell for certain? Black-capped Chickadees tend to cover their eggs with fur nesting material when they leave the nest so, at the moment, I can only tell for sure that there are 3 eggs in the nest. Going by the fact that they lay 1 egg a day though, that means there should be 4 today.
Black-capped Chickadees, on average, lay between 6 and 8 eggs per clutch, so we could be could be close to incubation (mama chickadee will begin incubating the day before her last egg is laid), or we could still be a few days away. Personally, I hope she goes for a smaller clutch–it’s a pretty small box and I can’t imagine how crowded 8 babies would be–but we’ll soon find out!
The Front Range Birding Company (FRBC), a locally-owned bird feeding and bird-watching store located in Littleton, Colorado, is expanding to a second location in Boulder this month! The new store is located at 5360 Arapahoe Avenue Unit E right next to Pica’s Taqueria.
In addition to selling bird seed and bird feeders, FRBC staff are extremely knowledgeable and helpful about all things bird (full disclosure: I may be a little biased since I just joined the Boulder crew!). They can recommend a new pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, or help you identify the bird that’s been hanging around your backyard. FRBC also hosts bird walks and talks with expert birders to birding hotspots around the Front Range.
I’m super excited to join the FRBC staff, so stop by for a visit and say hi when the store opens later this month.