Across the northern tier of states of the USA into southern Canada, black-capped chickadees are among the most popular and beloved backyard birds.
Their impulsive behavior and acrobatic movements are always fun to watch.
Attracting black-capped chickadees is as simple as providing them with the right food in the right feeder and learning how to understand their language.
Chickadees will tell you where they are and what they need from you if you just know how to listen to them.
Understanding What Chickadee Speaks
More than most other common backyard birds, chickadees give clear signals of what they fear, what they need, and what they have found.
Some signals are body language, and others are sounds.
- Nesting season is about to begin. In the winter, your backyard may have a whole flock of chickadees, if they have food, water, and security. But when the males begin to chirp “fee fee fee,” the flock is breaking up and they will fight each other to claim spring and summer nesting territory. This is a sign it is time to switch from winter to summer accommodations to keep chickadees in your yard.
- Claiming territory as its own. When a chickadee holds its body in a horizontal, ramming position, ruffles its feathers, and makes a loud”chee-ka-dee” sound, it is telling other birds that a location is its own. This usually occurs in late spring, when chickadees are pairing off to mate. This is a sign that it will need nesting materials soon.
- Announcing its intention to mate. Male and female chickadees announce their intentions to each other by facing each other, lowering their wings, and letting their wings quiver. They may dance while doing this ritual. This is another sign that you can keep them in your backyard by providing a nesting box and nesting materials.
- Signaling to other chickadees “I have found food.” Chickadees make a soft tweet, tweet sound to other chickadees when they have found food.
- Telling other flocks of chickadees at a feeder “This is ours.” Chickadees will hold their heads forward and make a “dee dee” call to chickadees they don’t know that a feeder is theirs.
- Telling other birds in the flock “I’m the boss.” Chickadees are highly hierarchical. There is usually a clear “boss bird” when a group of chickadees lives and feeds together in the winter. It will hold its head forward and make a “dee dee” sound to remind the other chickadees of their place.
- Warning other chickadees of danger. Chickadees make a “see see see see” sound when they spot predators, like hawks or cats. If you hear this sound, you know you need to provide them with a more secure environment to keep them in your backyard.
- Telling you where their nest is. Chickadees like to scoop out nesting sites from rotted wood. They will drop pieces of rotted wood into a pile near the place they are building their nest.
Chickadees are highly territorial birds.
There are many other calls and signals they use to send other birds the message “This place is not yours.”
But if you can learn to recognize these signals, you will know when it’s time to change your backyard strategy with the seasons.
Attracting Chickadees to your Backyard (Winter/Summer Strategy)
If you live in the usual range of chickadees, you probably have noticed lots of chickadees in the winter but only a single pair in the summer.
It’s important to provide enough food for the flock if you want to enjoy chickadees in the winter, but you need to avoid attracting competitors to your backyard if you want nesting chickadees in the summer.
The flock of chickadees you see in your yard in the winter is actually a group of pairs of chickadees that protect each other to survive the cold.
The chickadees in the flock will be loyal to their mates. If one dies during the winter, its mate will remain widowed until the next spring.
Then it will try to find a new mate.
The winter diet of black-capped chickadees is usually whatever they can find. They will eat seeds and berries of all descriptions.
You can keep the flock of chickadees in your backyard with black oil sunflower seeds, unsalted peanuts, and suet.
Chickadees will eat from tube feeders, platform feeders, hopper feeders, and suet feeders. It’s hard to go wrong with the food you offer them during cold weather.
During the nesting season, the male brings the female and then the newly hatched chicks regular meals of insects.
The male can remember hundreds of thousands of locations where it has seen insects and their eggs and larvae.
It will scour the surrounding neighborhood looking for food all day to keep its family alive unless you help it by providing mealworms.
Place live mealworms in a high-rimmed bowl (so they won’t wriggle away) or dried mealworms on a platform feeder, out of reach of predators. The male will take them to his mate and its young.
Be aware that just one encounter with a cat will cause chickadees to leave your yard forever if they are not in the process of raising their young.
They will leave as quickly as possible if the female is brooding or the young have not left their nest.
Chickadees have excellent memories of both food and danger. They will not forget a dangerous encounter in your yard.
Providing chickadees with food to cache
Peanuts are also a great way to keep a mating pair of chickadees in your backyard with their young.
That’s because chickadees use them to build caches of food for cold weather.
Chickadees will store peanuts one by one in crevices in the bark and crotches of trees.
They can remember thousands of locations where they have stored food. Generally, the colder and snowier the winters in your location, the more places chickadees will store and remember that they stored food.
Chickadees range as far north as central Alaska and the Yukon. Scientists have discovered that Alaskan chickadees can remember where they have stored food in as many as 10,000 locations through a kind of internal map.
These birds know how all of their caches relate to each other.
Keeping the landmarks in your backyard easy to find (and not cutting down trees) makes it easier for them to find the food they have stored so they can spend the winter with you.
But if you feed chickadees all winter, they can be trained to eat out of your hand.
Birdhouses for Chickadees
When you have a flock of chickadees in your backyard all winter, you may imagine putting up chickadee condos for a dozen mating pairs the next spring.
You won’t need to.
You will only need to put up one birdhouse for your chickadees the next spring because the others will have their own locations nearby, but out of range of each other.
Chickadees will only nest in locations where they can find enough insects to feed their young.
For your backyard to appeal to chickadees as a summer home, you will need to avoid spraying.
You will need to let old wood decay so it can become home to beetles and their larvae. You will need to leave some taller grasses that can provide homes for some of the insects the male chickadee will catch.
Birdhouses for chickadees should be made of softwood.
They will ideally have a base of about 5 in x 5 in (125 mm x 125 mm) and stand about 8 inches (20 cm) tall. They need a single, round entry hole of 1 in (25 mm) diameter about 6 inches (150 mm) above the base.
You can toss in a few wood chips to make the chickadees feel at home. They would have wood chips on the floor of their nest if they built in a tree.
Birdhouses for chickadees need to be placed at least 4 to 5 feet (100 to 125 cm) above ground level. They can be set as high as 10 feet (3.3 meters) in the air.
Remember, a single encounter with a predator will send would-be nesting pairs looking for sites other than your backyard.
Good results take patience
It can take several years of effort to establish chickadees in your backyard year-round.
It’s important to give them familiar landmarks.
They need to interact with the insects that feed on dead trees, so you shouldn’t keep your entire property pristine. And they need continuous protection from the animals that feed on them.
Do all of those things, and you can count on having chickadees to entertain you in your backyard every year.
More tips for attracting chickadees to your backyard
- For chickadees, black and white are sexy colors. Having gray feathers makes it harder for a chickadee to find a mate. You can help widowed chickadees that have lost their mate over the winter find a new companion by giving them a heated birdbath. They will use it to keep their feathers clean in the early spring.
- Older chickadees tend to be smarter than younger chickadees. They will find more places to hide food, and they will find ways to get food out of feeders that younger chickadees will not.
- Chickadees are vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature. They need at least three hours to adjust to temperatures falling 25 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) or more. Providing heated bird baths or safe cover where they won’t be found by predators can keep them healthier.
- Traffic noises male chickadees “jumpy.” They respond faster to distress calls and are more defensive of their territory. They have more energy to look after their mates and their young in quiet backyards.
- Scientists have discovered that chickadee brains grow new neurons in the spring that help them remember all the places they will store their food for the next winter. If they are caged, or don’t have to hunt for food. If they don’t have to forage for food, their brains don’t grow the new neurons they need to find and store food if you stop feeding them. That’s why it’s important to keep feeding chickadees all summer if you start in the spring. They won’t be ready to fend for themselves if they start the spring getting most of their food for a feeder.
- Chickadees adjust their songs so they can be heard over traffic noise. They make their songs shorter and higher-pitched so they are easier to hear. These songs can be confusing to chickadees that have recently flown in from woodlands and rural areas. You will have better results attracting chickadees if you live in a quiet neighborhood.
- In the winter, chickadees may mob a cat to drive it out of your backyard. There is a specific note, a D, that groups of chickadees use to call large numbers of birds to drive away a small predator, like a cat. Chickadees learn from experience how this technique works. Naive birds that have never had a problem with predators may try to mob predators that are too large for them.
- Playing a D note, by itself, can be distressing to chickadees in your backyard. They may conclude they narrowly escaped a predator and never return.
- Chickadees that come in contact with used kitty litter can catch a kind of brain parasite known as toxoplasmosis. The parasite disarms the parts of the bird’s brain that help it make the sounds alert other chickadees to the presence of cats.
- Chickadees can suffer post-traumatic stress after close encounters with predators. They develop memory problems that make it harder for them to find the food they stored for winter.
- Carolina chickadees can’t stand low temperatures in the winter. If you live in an area where there are mostly black-capped chickadees, don’t encourage Carolina chickadees to stay in your backyard. They will be killed off the next time you have a cold or normal winter. Carolina chickadees have grayer feathers, a clear division between the blsck throat and the white chest, and more “sa” sounds in their calls.
So these are some of the things to keep in mind when you want to attract Chickadees to your backyard.
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