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I have studied birds for years, but few have always stunned me, like the Carolina Chickadee.
This small songbird belongs to the Paridae family. And fits nicely into the palm of your hand, yet it is intelligent, curious, social, vocal, and friendly.
You can easily recognize this cute little bird in the field from its bandit mask—a blackhead crown and a dark throat patch. Or from its distinctive “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call and “fee-bee” sound.
At a glance, the Carolina Chickadee looks like any other bird doing ordinary things like eating insects, hanging out with friends, singing, and raising young ones. But a closer look, as we shall soon see, reveals a fantastic bird.
How to Identify the Caroline Chickadee
Chickadees are small birds, but the Carolina Chickadee is even more diminutive. Fully grown, they weigh 0.4 ounces, measure 4.75 inches long, and have a wingspan of 7.9 inches. It is the smallest of North America’s chickadee family.
Table: Male and female measurements
|Weight||0.3 oz||0.4 oz|
The Carolina Chickadee is easy to identify. It has a black cap and a bib with white patches on the sides of its face, giving it a masked appearance.
In fact, the conspicuous masked appearance led to naming a group of chickadees as a banditry of chickadees.
They have a gray back, a long tail, a stubby wings, a white belly, and a tan flanks.
The chickadee has a short dark bill, a large head, and a short neck, giving it a unique spherical body shape. And the reason you will love chickadees.
Females are slightly smaller than males, but there is no noticeable difference between them.
Carolina Chickadee Facts
- Common Name: Carolina Chickadee
- Scientific Name: Poecile carolinensis
- Family: Paridae
- Average Lifespan: 2 -3 years
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
Habitat and Range
You can spot Carolina Chickadees in various habitats, including open forests, deciduous forests, forest edges, mixed woodlands, and suburban and urban parks.
They are year-round residents of the southeastern parts of the US: from the south to Florida and Texas; and from Kansas to New Jersey. So, you have a Carolina Chickadee in your area if you live in the southeastern parts of America.
However, they do not breed in high-altitude ranges in the Appalachian Mountains.
The Carolina Chickadee is a non-migratory bird that stays year-round in its range. And it will not even move during severe weather. This provides an excellent opportunity to watch its delightful behavior throughout the year.
Chickadees come in seven species which are very similar. However, it is pretty simple to distinguish Carolina Chickadees from most of them based on their color pattern, habitat range, and calls.
Side by side, the Carolina Chickadee is very similar to particular birds, making it challenging to distinguish them using colors and vocals only.
Even for experienced birdwatchers, it’s challenging to distinguish them from some close species in the field. Case in point: the Black-capped Chickadees and the Mountain Chickadees. It is believed the two birds are very similar and cannot even differentiate themselves, especially in regions where they overlap. Because of their similarity, the Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees often hybridize.
Differences Between Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees
The Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees are very similar, but if you look at them closely side by side you will notice the subtle differences. In addition to looking at their physical appearance you can set them apart using their habitat, range, and songs.
Let’s look at how you can tell there birds apart even if you are a beginner in birdwatching.
- Black-capped Chickadees live in the northern part of the US, including Canada, while Carolina Chickadees occupy the southern part.
- Carolina Chickadee’s song has four syllables sounding like fee-bee-dee-bee. Mountain Chickadees produce three syllables sounding like fee-bee-fee or fee-bee-eee.
- Carolina Chickadees are smaller and shorter than Black-capped Chickadees.
- The Carolina Chickadee’s plumage in the fall and winter is grayish. During these seasons, the Black-capped Chickadee is more colorful: olive on its back and buff below its wings and flanks.
- Carolina Chickadees have plain gray wings, while Black-capped Chickadees have contrasting colors.
- The Carolina Chickadee has a relatively straight, even bib, while the Black-capped Chickadee has a rugged one.
The two species from New Jersey to Kansas interact in a narrow hybrid zone, approximately 20 miles wide.
The chickadees at the overlap zone mate and produce hybrids that are difficult to distinguish from one another. Aside from that, both species close to the overlap zone learn each other’s sounds and songs, further complicating differentiation based on vocalizations.
It is easier to tell the hybrids apart as they produce odd variations of the songs and sounds.
Differences Between Carolina and Mountain Chickadees
Carolina and Mountain Chickadees are similar too but their similarities are not striking as in the case of Mountain and the Carolina Chickadee.
Using the following attributes you can easily differentiate the Carolina from the Mountain Chickadee.
- A Mountain Chickadee has a white stripe over its eyes, whereas a Carolina Chickadee does not have one.
- Carolina Chickadees live in deciduous woodlands, while Mountain Chickadees live in green forests.
Besides Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, you can confuse Carolina Chickadees with birds from different families. These close birds include Blackpoll Warblers and White-breasted Nuthatches.
Blackpoll Warblers have smaller heads and are less plump than Carolina Chickadees. Their backs and wings are brown and they don’t have black bibs.
The White-breasted Nuthatch has a long bill and a short tail and lacks the black bib on its throat. The two have distinct behaviors as well. Although both are expert tree acrobats, Carolina Chickadees cling to small branches and twigs. A White-breasted Nuthatch creeps along tree trunks and large branches.
Diet of the Carolina Chickadee
Chickadees are omnivorous and eat various foods based on the season, ranging from seeds to invertebrates. They need food to keep warm in winter and energy to sustain their active lifestyle.
Invertebrates, especially insects and spiders, are primary food sources during summer, spring, and fall. Up to 90% of the Carolina Chickadee’s diet comprises wasps, butterflies, ants, beetles, spiders, and moths during this season. Chickadees also relish invertebrates’ larvae, eggs, and pupae.
While you may love chickadees for their beauty, farmers and homeowners have another reason—the chickadee’s love for insects.
Flying around plants, they search for sawflies, tent caterpillars, treehoppers, cicadas, weevils, and wood borers—a massive benefit to gardeners and farmers.
The result is a reduction in plant destruction and insecticide use. Coming from such a tiny bird weighing just a quarter of an ounce, it enormously contributes to agriculture, homes, and the ecosystem.
During winter, insect populations decline, and chickadees rely on vegetables, especially native tree seeds, to survive. At this time of year, they will also enjoy a rare meal of berries and crab apples.
Did you know chickadees cache food? During winter, chickadees primarily consume stored food items and seeds.
When there is plenty of food, chickadees cache seeds and other food items in tree bark; as the winter approaches, the food becomes a vital source of energy for the bird.
Caching is essential for non-migratory birds or animals experiencing severe winters. But this can be a fruitless activity if the animal cannot remember the locations of its caches.
Fortunately, chickadees have a unique means of survival during the harsh winter.
- They can remember most if not all food stored in different locations. This is possible because of an excellent spatial memory.
- In addition, the chickadee’s hippocampus memory enlarges every winter to boost their recollection abilities..
A crucial strategy to have as consequences of forgetting the locations of the cached foods is severe, often death.
Chickadees can remember the locations of the cached foods for several months. That’s not all: They know which caches they have visited and retrieved food from.
Chickadees’ food caching strategy benefits others too. The caches help other small mammals and birds who stumble on the cached food get a meal for the day.
Surviving the Harsh Winter
Life in the wild can be harsh, especially to our darling Carolina chickadee and other birds. But they are well adapted to their surroundings and survive even in the harshest climates.
While many birds migrate away from this region during the chilly winter, the Carolinas survive through it. Thanks to biological processes, they can cope with the harsh climate and maintain their population. The biological processes include dropping body temperature to save energy and accumulating fat during the day for use at night.
Dropping Body Temperature
The Carolinas undergo hypothermia, a process in which they drop their body temperature for up to 15 hours. The bird goes into a deep torpor, lowering heart rate and metabolism while minimizing other bodily functions.
As the chickadee undergoes hypothermia, it lowers its body temperature by up to 12 to 15 degrees F. This process preserves alot of energy because the bird does not burn fat to maintain its daytime body temperature or to move around.
Fat Builds Up During the Day
During the chilly, shorter days in winter, the Carolina eats a lot and store extra food as fat. Studies have shown that they can store over half their body weight in fat on a cold winter day. The bird then uses the fat to survive the long, icy night as they rest.
Each day until the season is over, the chickadee repeats the process. They accumulate lots of fat during the day, which they burn to survive the long, chilly night.
A Chickadee’s Call is Enough to Send Friends Diving for Cover and Much More
As highly vocal and cheerful birds, chickadees use different songs and calls to alert, communicate, and maintain contact with other chickadees.
Chickadees’ calls serve many purposes, including:
- The chickadee alerts others when it spots a predator: By altering the intensity and frequency of the call, it shows whether the predator is moving and what type it is. For a dangerous predator, a chickadee warning call will have many dee-dee-dees. But for less dangerous predators, the calls have fewer dees
- Locate each other: Chickadees use a low fee-bee call to keep in contact.
- Attract a potential mate: During mating season, males use the fee-bee call in a courtship ritual to attract a mate.
- Aggression when defending a territory: Chickadees use calls to establish territories and defend them using gargle calls and aggressive displays.
Chickadees are friendly to humans, but that does not mean you can move in too close. When you wander closer, chickadees send out an alarm call to alert other birds. In time, the sentry may decide to check you out closer. And as you walk away, the curious sentry will trail you, darting from tree to tree while maintaining a lower alarm call.
Courtship and Nesting
Courtship is a simple affair for the Carolina Chickadee. It lacks a display of the male’s bright colors like the Red-winged Blackbird—no breathtaking sky dancing rituals as with the Bald Eagle or spine-chilling aerial somersaults of the mockingbird.
Males use calls and songs to woo females in a simple courtship process. Aside from the sweet melodies and calls, the courtship involves one or several males pursuing a female, with mate feeding and occasional bill touching.
After the courtship, the pair will establish a territory and stay together.
Females select nesting sites, primarily old or dead trees. And using their bills, both males and females work together to excavate a nesting hole.
And to avoid attracting predators to their nest, the birds will dispose of the wood clippings away from the tree.
Being cavity nesters, chickadees will readily occupy suitable birdhouses, often choosing one with wood chippings at the bottom. Chickadees shuns birdhouses with sawdust because it could be harmful to them. Besides, removing wood chips from a birdhouse is like excavating nests in the wild.
After excavating and emptying the wood chips, the female builds the nest’s foundation using moss or twigs. She will then add soft bedding like fur, feathers, or grass.
The female then lays up to 12 white and brown-spotted eggs. She will only incubate the eggs after she has finished laying them. This strategy ensures the eggs will hatch almost simultaneously after two weeks.
While the chickadee is incubating, the danger is always close by. If a predator tries to enter the nest just like any other mother, the female will defend the nest, often using a snake display. In a dramatic behavior, she sways back and forth while hissing and striking the intruder. She cannot bite like a snake, but she might scare away some predators.
Once the eggs are hatched, both parents care for the young. The male brings food to his mate and young until they can leave the nest.
Chickadees usually produce one brood in a year. But it can produce two broods when there are plenty of food resources.
Table: Carolina Chickadee Nesting Data
|Clutch Size||3–10 eggs|
|Egg Description||White with brownish dots|
Two brood when there is plenty of food.
|Nestling Period||16-19 days|
|Incubation Period||12-15 days|
Carolina Chickadee Populations
According to Partners in Flight, the Carolina Chickadee population stands at 13 million. And it scores 10 out of 20 on the continental conservation concern score, pointing to a stable breeding population of species of low conservation concern.
However, from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Carolina Chickadee population declined by 16 percent between 1966 and 2019.
Historically, Carolina Chickadee has maintained a stable population because forest clearing for agricultural purposes has provided more habitats, especially along forest edges.
Carolina Chickadee populations are threatened by predators that target their young and eggs. Various animals attack the Carolina Chickadee’s nests, including snakes, squirrels, cats, wrens, raccoons, and hawks.
There are also threats to chickadee nestlings from logging and destroying dead and old trees.
Fun & Interesting Facts
- The Carolina Chickadee is the tiniest bird of the chickadee family of North America.
- Chickadees cache seeds and other food items in multiple locations and can recall where they were.
- They often pick food from bird feeders for caching or eating on a nearby branch.
- They are among the few birds that hang upside down on trees as they pick invertebrates, berries, and seeds.
- During a birding trip in South Carolina, John James Audubon, an ornithologist, and artist, gave the bird its name.
- Most birds in a mixed flock depend on chickadee’s calls to escape predators and locate food. This happens even if the birds in the flock cannot produce similar calls as chickadees.
- In 1974, West Virginia state recaptured and released the oldest Carolina Chickadee. Banding details show it was over ten years and 11 months old at the capture time.
Carolina Chickadee: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Chickadees have a shorter life span of about 2 to 3 years. This is primarily because of predation and the harsh, chilly winter season. Providing them with bird feeders and houses increases their life expectancy by five to ten years. In fact, the most extended recorded life of a Chickadee is ten years and 11 months.
Answer: A Chickadee pair will reuse the same nest if it is clean. So if you have a birdhouse for Chickadees, clean it after every breeding season.
If you cannot clean it, then be prepared to welcome a new couple. The new couple, however, will not also use an old nest but will clean it. With lots of vitality and enthusiasm, the new pair will toss the old nesting materials from former occupants out of the hole. Cleaning the nest helps to protect the young ones against diseases and parasites.
Answer: Chickadees are friendly and easy to attract to the backyard. Use the following tips to lure these tiny birds to your backyard :
• Food: provide them with suitable food, including nuts, berries, fruits, seeds, and insects. Plant flowers, shrubs, and trees in your backyard to attract insects and spiders; and minimize insecticides and herbicides.
• Install bird feeders filled with seeds, nuts, and sunflower seeds
• Provide them with fresh water, including heated bird baths during winter.
• Lure Carolina Chickadees to your backyard with a suitable birdhouse.
• Scatter wood shavings and nesting materials like fur
Answer: Chickadees are non-migratory and must survive through the long, chilly winter nights. So during the cold nights, they sleep:
• Under cover of dense evergreen thickets, sheltered from the snow and wind.
• Others roost in roosting cavities which are usually smaller than the nesting cavities.
• Some may sleep under the eaves of homes.
Answer: Chickadees are monogamous birds and often stay with a single mate for life. This arrangement is especially true for experienced and stronger pairs that have survived winter seasons together. A pair will usually stay together until the other dies.
But sometimes, an inexperienced young female may leave her male for another after a winter season.
During winter, Chickadees often form a flock comprising a dominant male and female; and subordinates, usually juveniles. The birds know each other during this season and pair off in spring.
A pair establishes a territory, mates, and if they survive the chilly weather together will continue mating.
The Amazing Bird
I’m always captivated whenever I observe the Carolina Chickadees in the field or backyard.
Yes, this tiniest member of the masked bandits is not as melodic as the thrushes or warblers, nor is it as multi-colored as the buntings. But when it comes to intelligence, predator alarms, pest control, hanging out with friends, human interaction, and captivating behavior, fewer birds can rival it.
Even though they are widely spread in Carolina state, you can not tire of watching them. They are always hanging upside down on twigs, collecting seeds from feeders, or vocalizing their namesake tune, “chick-a-dee-dee.”
Chickadees cache food to survive the winter; many citizens provide food, water, feeders, and birdhouses to ensure they survive the long, icy nights. In return, they enjoy watching the feathery friends stop by for a bite of food, water, and shelter.
- Carolina Chickadee Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Avian Conservation Assessment Database Scores – Partners in Flight Databases
- Carolina Chickadee | Audubon Field Guide
- Carolina Chickadee Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Carolina Chickadee | National Geographic
- Carolina chickadee – Wikipedia
- Carolina Chickadee – Bird Houses (birdhouses101.com)
- Poecile carolinensis (Carolina Chickadee) (iucnredlist.org)
- Carolina Chickadee: Bird Identification, Habits, Facts, Nesting – Bird Informer
- Carolina Chickadee: Nest and Eggs – Avian Report
- The hippocampus and memory: insights from spatial processing | Nature Reviews Neuroscience
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