Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Nesting Black-Capped Chickadee

June is the peak of the nesting season in the Adirondacks, and among the many birds currently involved in the process of producing offspring is the black-capped chickadee. Known to everyone that maintains a feeder in winter, this friendly and perky songster enters into its breeding season in mid spring as nesting territories gradually become established, and the winter flock dissolves. As a general rule, the dominant male and female in the flock pair up and lay claim to the most favorable area within the immediate surroundings.

These birds tend to be the oldest members of the flock and likely paired with each other during the previous year. The next ranking male and female in the flock’s well established hierarchy are also likely to form a mating bond and take control of much of the remaining area used by the flock for their winter territory. Any remaining pairs of birds that have survived the winter may either attempt to establish a breeding territory in whatever unoccupied parcels of forest remain in the immediate vicinity, or they may relocate to other areas that were avoided in winter because of limited food resources in these places.

With the approach of the nesting season, chickadees begin to incorporate much greater quantities of animal matter into their diet. Even though there may still be seeds available at feeders, these birds start to concentrate more of their time searching for small bugs which are rich in both protein and fats. Egg development within the female requires high amounts of these two nutrients, especially protein. And while the males do not need the same high levels of protein as the females, they still gather these nitrogen enriched morsels of invertebrate matter and offer them to their mate to help her with her intake of vital nutrients.

After each pair has settled on a particular parcel of forest, they then begin to search for a nest site. Like the woodpeckers, the chickadee constructs its nest in a wooden cavity. Typically, a dead, partially rotted poplar or white birch stub that is roughly 4 inches in diameter is favored. The soft, almost spongy interior of these standing columns allows the chickadee to chip away and pull out fragments of wood from the inside of the very upper section of the stub. The male and female both work intermittently during the day for nearly a week until they have completed a nearly 8 inch deep chamber that will serve to shelter their eggs, and then their nestlings. Because such trees are never very high, chickadee cavities tend to be within 15 feet of the ground, with some being built at eye level.

In places where a dead and partially rotted stub can not be found, or in spots where the potential nest sites are deemed unacceptable because of some threat, like the close presence of a red squirrel nest, the chickadee resorts to placing its nest in a cavity that already exists. Sometimes a pair of chickadees may settle into a chamber excavated by a woodpecker. The pair is also known to use a nest box when a rotted stub can not be found. Since chickadees strongly prefer to take up residence in a cavity that they excavate themselves, some people attempt to attract these birds to a nest box by packing it with small wood chips, like those produced by a sharp chain saw.

After the chamber is completed, the cavity is then lined with a layer of soft material, like hair, downy feathers or strands of moss. The female then begins the process of laying eggs, and like most other birds, she deposits a single egg in the nest each morning until the clutch is completed.

Then follows the process of incubation which lasts nearly two weeks. Next is the very challenging chore of trying to keep the nestlings well fed. Like a female that is developing eggs, the nestlings require a diet composed of spiders, insects, millipedes and other bugs.
During the summer, people are encouraged to take down their feeders, or stop placing seeds out in them. Maintaining a feed in summer serves to attract raccoons, bears and other unwanted wildlife visitors. While it may seem cruel to completely cut the birds off from their regular source of food, these creatures no longer rely on such items for their nourishment. This is the time when bugs become the food of choice for most birds during their nesting season here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.




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