Chickadees—Black-capped and Mountain

On the wild side—December, 2010

by Tina Mitchell

We are lucky to have 2 species of the spritely chickadee here:  Black-capped Chickadee and Mountain Chickadee.  Both a bit more than 5” long, Black-cappeds sport black bibs and solid black caps (naturally!) that stretch to below their eyes (making it hard to actually see their dark eyes) and down their necks; their cheeks display sideways triangles of white; and gray backs, wings, and tails complete the picture.  Mountain Chickadees look similar, but they can be distinguished from all other North American chickadee species (there are 7 in all!) by the white stripe over their eyes, called a supercilium.  In both species, males and females look alike (at least to us humans).  Where these 2 species are overlap, they prefer different habitats:  Black-cappeds tend toward deciduous and mixed wooded areas while Mountains stick to coniferous forests—pines and junipers—and this is just the mix you can find in our area.

The scientific name for the Black-capped Chickadee is Poecile atricapilla, from Greek poikilos for dappled (the black, white, and gray on the body), ater (black), and capillus (head).  The Mountain Chickadee goes by Poecile gambeli; that species name comes from William Gambel, an ornithologist and adventurer who spent time in the West.  Although both species produce a wide variety of calls, the common name “chickadee” comes from the most frequently heard call, which sounds surprisingly like “chick-ah-dee-dee-dee.”  Both species give this call, although the Black-capped’s call rings rapid and relatively clear while the Mountain’s sounds generally a bit slower and raspier, with fewer “dees” tacked on at the end—more like “chick-ah-dee-ah-dee.”  Researchers report that you can determine the threat level perceived by a Black-capped by counting the “dees”—more “dees,” more concern.

Chickadees eat insects, berries, suet, and seeds.  Researchers in Colorado showed that the presence of chickadees and their bug-eating prowess improves the growth in pine forests by removing harmful insects.  Using netting to exclude chickadees (and other small insect-eating species) from portions of a ponderosa pine forest, they found that limb growth in the chickadee-less areas exhibited almost 20% less foliage and one third less wood growth at the end of the study.  Way to go, chickadees!

Both species of chickadee frequent seed feeders too, with a real penchant for sunflower seeds.  A chickadee often picks up and sets aside several seeds before choosing the heaviest one.  It then flies a short distance to cover, hammers it open, and chows down.  Then back to the feeder; back to cover; back to the feeder; back to cover—always only one seed at a time.

Black-cappeds occur widely throughout the northern U.S. and southern Canada, while Mountains are strictly westerners.  Across our state as a whole, Mountain Chickadees outnumber Black-capped Chickadees by a ratio of about 6:1.  In fact, Colorado claims some bragging rights about Mountain Chickadees.  We can boast the 4th largest population of breeding Mountain Chickadees in the U.S.—bested only by California, Oregon, and Arizona.

A Crow Indian legend holds that the chickadee is willing to work for wisdom, is a good listener, has sharp hearing, minds its own business, and learns from the successes and failures of others.  Characteristics we could all strive for, wrapped in a pint-sized ball of dappled feathers!

To learn more about chickadees—e.g., their songs and details on the research noted here—click here.

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