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Carolina Chickadee (What Time is it in Nature)

November 22, 2014

The summer birds have mostly left Prairie Ridge at this point and have been replaced by their winter counterparts. You can hear the White-throated Sparrows calling off in the woods and the tap tap tap of the Downy Woodpeckers as they look for tasty morsels hidden among the bark of the trees. One of the birds you’re likely to see most often at this time of year is a small, year-round resident, the Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadees are members of the tit family of birds, Paridae. They’re on the smaller side, about 4-5 inches long with a 6-8 inch wingspan. They have compact bodies with short necks and large heads, but their tails are fairly long. Like their close relatives, the Black-capped Chickadees, the Carolina Chickadees have a black cap on their heads and a black bib under their short, dark beaks, but white cheeks. They are mostly white on the underside and a soft grey on top with a hint of rusty-brown on their flanks. You’ll find Carolina Chickadees throughout most of the southeastern US, from southeastern Kansas and central New Jersey south to Texas and central Florida.

Carolina Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees are such close relatives, sharing very similar appearances, habits, and habitat requirements, that it is very difficult to distinguish the two species. Skilled birders might be able to tell them apart by looking at the wing feathers visible when the wings are folded up: Black-capped Chickadee wing feathers are almost entirely edged in white while there is very little white on the feather edges in the Carolina Chickadee. It is easier to tell the two species apart by their song. Both birds make the chicka-dee-dee-dee call that gives them their name, but the Carolina Chickadee has a shorter, higher song than its Black-capped relatives. Carolinas also have a four-noted song while the Black-cappeds have a two or three-noted song.

These small birds are active foragers. During the summer, Carolina Chickadees feed almost exclusively on insects and spiders that they harvest from the cracks of tree bark. During the winter, the birds shift their diet such that they feed mostly on seeds and berries. Carolina Chickadees are solitary birds and rarely feed or sleep in pairs or groups. You may see several Chickadees at a bird feeder, but you’ll notice that the birds will grab a seed and fly away from the feeder to eat it alone, cracking it open and eating it on a nearby branch of a tree or shrub before returning for another bite. The birds will, however, form small feeding flocks in the winter, calling out to one another when they find a good source of food. These flocks often draw in other birds, such as Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees (where their ranges overlap), both Golden- and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Red-, Brown-, and White-Breasted Nuthatches, and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Carolina Chickadees form pairs that may last several seasons and both birds will work together to excavate or find an unoccupied cavity in a tree. They are also known to use nest boxes. Once the location is selected and the cavity excavated, the female will then build a nest inside the cavity, lining it first with moss and sometimes bark. She will then add a thick layer of dried grasses, other plant fibers, and soft animal hair before laying 3-10 small cream-colored eggs with brown speckles. The eggs typically hatch in about two weeks and the babies will remain in the nests for 2-3 weeks before striking out on their own.

You can see and hear dozens of Carolina Chickadees on any visit to Prairie Ridge! Look for them in the trees and shrubs near the bird feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom and in the Arboretum. As we approach winter, the birds will begin to form their winter feeding flocks, so you may see 8-12 birds in groups for the next few months. If you stop and listen for a moment, you’ll hear the birds singing and calling from the trees. And, if you attend a Citizen Science Saturday walk in the spring on a day where we feature Nest Watch, you might have a chance to see nests, eggs, or baby birds! Carolina Chickadees are bold, adorable birds, so make a trip out to see them!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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