Category Archives: Black-capped chickadee saga

Empty Nester

When last we checked in with the Black-capped Chickadee family, there were 4 live chicks and an egg.

Black-capped Chickadees on May 11, 2019. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.

Black-capped Chickadee gathering suet for his/her brood. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.

Black-capped Chickadee quartet on May 20, 2019. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.

Extreme closeup as one chick explores what its wings can do. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.

The last fledgling checks out the outside world prior to fledging. Photo by Jamie Simo

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.

The infertile Black-capped Chickadee egg that had been buried in the nest. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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!





Best Laid Plans

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.




Return of the Black-capped Chickadees

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.

A Black-capped Chickadee dropping wood shavings away from its nest. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.

Two Black-capped Chickadee eggs on April 19, 2019. Black-capped Chickadee eggs are white speckled with brown and just under an inch long.

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!



You’re on Candid Camera

I’d talked about it last year, but this year I finally got a camera set up for my Black-capped Chickadee nestbox. It was a bit more of a feat than the Northern Flicker box I wired because the chickadee box is much smaller so the camera wouldn’t fit in the box.

Instead of putting the camera in the box, we cut a hole in the roof of the box and then put a plastic dome over the camera to protect it from the weather. The camera’s lens and lighting system peer through the hole down into the box.

The box is a little ways from the house so it also required cutting a little trench and burying the camera cord (so I won’t run over it or clothesline myself when mowing). While I could’ve gotten a wireless camera, it still would’ve required a power source and, from what I’ve heard, wired cameras seem to be more reliable.

Anyway, no takers yet, but the camera has only been up for about a day, so it’s early days. There have definitely been a couple chickadees checking out the new digs in that time, though, so my fingers are crossed that we’ll soon see some more action!



Flying the Coop

Black-capped Chickadee parent with food for its chicks. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted because I’ve been so busy lately! On either May 22nd or early May 23rd, the Black-capped Chickadees in my nest box fledged. There were either 2 or 3 nestlings based on my observations on May 22nd.

On the 22nd, I watched both parents feed at the entry hole every 5 minutes or so and often fly off with fecal packets. Between parental visits, one nestling, noticeable as a nestling by its fleshy gape, kept sticking its head out of the hole of the nest box and looking around as if it was ready to jump out at any minute.

Black-capped Chickadee nestlings in nest box very close to fledging. Photo by Jamie Simo.

When I checked the next morning, the birds were gone. Next year I’ll try and rig up the nest box camera to see if I can’t capture the whole show. Since the box I’m using is pretty small, I may need to develop a false roof to attach the camera.







My Little Chickadee

On March 29th, I finally got around to putting up the chickadee nest box I bought last year. Like with my flicker box, I targeted the Black-capped Chickadee as a potential yard tenant based on the fact I had a handful of them already hanging around and eating from my bird feeder. Well, on March 30th, I noticed a chickadee going in and out of the box and on April 6th, the pair already had a complete nest!

Black-capped Chickadee at Belmar Park in Lakewood, CO, excavating a nest cavity. Both male and female chickadees will excavate. Photo by Jamie Simo.

There are 7 chickadee species in North America and all are cavity-nesters. When I lived in Virginia, my backyard chickadee was the Carolina Chickadee, which tends to have a more southerly range than the Black-capped Chickadees I now encounter. Like the Northern Flicker, the Black-capped Chickadee will readily use a nest box. Of  course, the chickadee is much smaller than the flicker, so it needs a smaller box. A good idea to keep birds like European Starlings and, especially, House Sparrows, away, is to buy or make a box with an entry hole too small for those birds to enter. I bought a hole guard made of metal to screw over the entry hole. The guard is 1 1/8 inches in diameter, which is perfect for the chickadees to squeeze through, but too small for those other bully birds.

A Black-capped Chickadee pulls fluff from a cattail to line her nest. Photo by Old Mister Crow.

Also unlike the Northern Flicker, which lays her eggs directly in the wood chips at the bottom of the cavity she’s chosen, the Black-capped Chickadee will build a nest inside her cavity of choice on top of the wood chips. The female constructs the nest using mosses, evergreen needles, bark, and other coarse materials as a base, which she then lines with softer material like animal fur and plant fibers like milkweed fluff. Only the female chickadee incubates the eggs.

Because I didn’t realize the chickadees would be so quick to start nesting, I didn’t get a nest camera installed beforehand, but I’m planning on putting one up next year. In the meantime, I’ll try to document the nest attempt as best I can. Chickadees are more sensitive to monitoring than bluebirds, so I probably won’t be checking the box too frequently lest I cause them to abandon it.