Out My Backdoor: You Can Be a Chickadee Landlord

By Terry W. Johnson

Along about this time of year I find myself yearning for signs of spring. Not too long ago, while walking about my yard I came across the season's first crocus and daffodils blooming. Seeing these hardy plants in full bloom convinced me that Mother Nature had opened the door to a change in the seasons, just a crack, and spring was looking in.

Whenever spring is on the doorstep, we wildlife enthusiasts begin thinking about nesting boxes. When such thoughts start swirling around in our minds, we have a tendency to automatically envision bluebird nesting boxes. I suspect this is because the vast majority of nesting boxes erected in backyards across the Peach State are designed for this colorful bird. This is in spite of the fact that a host of other cavity nesting birds can also benefit from nesting boxes. One such bird is the Carolina chickadee.

This feathered sprite measures only 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ inches long. Its distinctive black cap and bib, gray wings and white undersides make it recognizable by those with only even a passing interest in birds. On top of that, it is difficult not to be able to identify a bird that literally repeats its name (chick-a-dee-dee) throughout the day. Since the Carolina chickadee is often so tame it lets us approach within a few feet before flying away, it also is a bird that can be enjoyed without the aid of binoculars.

Carolina chickadees are most often seen in our backyards as they make frequent forays to feeders. Here, they prefer to dine on sunflower seeds; however, they will also eat suet. Some of the more bizarre food items consumed by the birds are stale doughnuts, cookie crumbs, pie crust and white bread.

I have always enjoyed watching chickadees feed. They fly up to a feeder, pluck out a single sunflower seed with their tiny bills and quickly fly away to a nearby limb. Once there, they hold the seed between their feet and begin hammering away with their bills. Once the hard seed hull is breached, the bird eats the energy-packed seed and flies back to the feeder for another.

Although they are known to store food, I have never been fortunate enough to witness a chickadee hoarding a supply of sunflower seeds or other food.

While the Carolina chickadee's affinity for sunflower seeds is legendary, roughly half of its diet is made up of an eclectic assortment of moths, caterpillars, tree hoppers, cockroaches, ants, bees, spiders and other invertebrates. They also eat the seeds of a variety of plants such as redbud, sweetgum, hickory and pine.

Carolina chickadee in nest box. Terry W. Johnson

Adult Carolina chickadees stay together throughout the year. However, from fall through late winter, they sometimes become members of small feeding flocks composed of brown-headed nuthatches, brown creepers, downy woodpeckers, titmice, pine warblers and kinglets.

Carolina chickadees nest in dead trees, stumps and limbs. In many cases, they will take over abandoned cavities made by downy, hairy and other woodpeckers. If they don't find a cavity that suits their needs, they will either enlarge an existing nest site or fashion a new one.

Both members of a pair assist in this process. Should you be lucky enough to happen across a pair of Carolina chickadees hard at work preparing a nesting cavity, take the time to watch the birds: You will quickly gain some appreciation of the magnitude of the task.

After chiseling out a beak full of soft, decayed wood, they will carry the chips 20 feet or more away before dropping them. It is thought that this is done to keep from advertising their nesting sites to potential predators.

One of the most serious problems facing Carolina chickadees and other cavity nesting birds is the fact that the dead trees they need for nesting and roosting are rapidly disappearing. This is particularly true in the urban and suburban areas where most of us live. As a result, as time passes, chickadees will invariably become more dependent on humans to provide artificial cavities.

Ideally, we can help out by letting stand dead trees in our backyards whenever they don't pose a threat to humans or property. However, this is not always possible.

Fortunately for Carolina chickadees, they will nest in manmade nest structures. Currently, the vast majority of the boxes they use in Georgia were built with eastern bluebirds in mind. Since most bluebird boxes have 1 1/2-inch entrance holes and more interior space than chickadees need, the demure Carolina chickadee is often forced to compete for the box with bluebirds and other cavity nesters. On top of that, most bluebird boxes are placed in nesting habitat ideal for bluebirds and not chickadees.

Ideally, a Carolina chickadee nesting box should have the following: an interior floor measuring only 4 inches x 4, and a smaller 1 1/8-inch entrance hole 6 to 8 inches from the floor and the bottom of the hole. The smaller hole greatly reduces competition between chickadees and larger cavity nesters, which cannot fit through the smaller entrance.

If you are not inclined to build or buy a nest box designed for Carolina chickadees, you can help these birds by erecting a bluebird box in the chickadee's preferred nesting habitat.

Whatever you do, make sure each box is equipped with a steel hole guard. This prevents flying squirrels from enlarging the hole and ruining the box.

Erect Carolina chickadee boxes on a metal pole 5-10 feet above the ground either where a yard adjoins woods or within an open wooded yard (eastern bluebirds prefer to nest in open yards with few, if any trees). Adding a predator guard to each pole will help ensure a successful nest.

If you erect one or more Carolina chickadee boxes this year, you will find it is always exciting to see if your habitat improvement efforts have met with any success.

The nest is easy to identify: It is built of a variety of materials including strips of bark, cinnamon fern, milkweed, thistle down, feathers, and the hair of rabbits, mice, deer and cattle. A typical clutch contains five to eight white eggs speckled with reddish brown dots, which are concentrated at the large end of the egg.

If you happen to check a box containing a parent incubating the eggs, don't be alarmed with you lift to lid to the box and hear what sounds like a hissing copperhead. More than likely the sound is being made by the incubating chickadee. It is thought that the birds make this noise to deter nest predators.

However, if you hear buzzing emanating from inside the box, beware! It seems that bumblebees, which typically building their nests in the ground, will sometimes nest in old chickadee nests.

If you have suitable Carolina chickadee nesting habitat in your yard, I hope you will erect a nesting box for this splendid little bird. Although it is not as showy as an eastern bluebird, it is just as deserving of our help, and is an important member of a complex community of plants and animals that make our backyards such special places.

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact rick.lavender@dnr.ga.gov.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com. “Out My Backdoor” archive.