It’s a cold, grey, windy day today and my yard is awash in activity. My bird feeders especially are getting a workout with several new visitors this year, including a Mountain Chickadee. Mountain Chickadees aren’t uncommon along the Front Range, but they’re usually found in the foothills and mountains where there are an abundance of conifers rather than in my lower elevation deciduous-tree-dominated suburban neighborhood.
Other than their calls, Mountain Chickadees are fairly easy to differentiate from Black-capped Chickadees. The most obvious visual difference is the Mountain’s bold white eyebrow, which makes it a little angry-looking. The Mountain is also usually a lot greyer, with very little if any buffiness on the underparts and less white edging on the wings.
Although my area of Colorado is only home to Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, the true ID challenge is between Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. Carolina Chickadees are slightly smaller than Black-capped Chickadees and are more of a southeastern US bird. They were my backyard chickadee in Virginia.
Like the Mountain Chickadee, Carolinas are greyer than the Black-capped with little white wing-edging and not as much buffy coloring on their underparts. Their white cheek patch is greyer toward the back of the head and their black “bib” is smaller than the Black-capped with well-defined edges. There is also much less white edging on the outer tail feathers in Carolina Chickadees.
Probably the easiest way to distinguish between the Carolina Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee, however, is by voice. The song of the Black-capped Chickadee is usually a 3-note “Hey sweet-ie” whereas the Carolina’s song is usually a a 4-note song: “Fee bee fee bay.” The Carolina Chickadee also tends to have a faster call. But don’t worry, the two look-alikes only share territory in a small band roughly shown on the map below.
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!
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.
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.
On the ground info about Colorado nature and wildlife.