Arts and Entertainment

Starting with chickadees

I first became interested in the birds of this area when I began working as office manager at the Dungeness River Audubon Center several years ago. I took a beginning birds class and I was hooked on the program.

The center offers many interesting classes to help educate people interested in identifying and learning about birds at many levels. The River Center also offers early morning (rain or shine) Wednesday bird walks at the park with center director Bob Boekelheide leading.

I also found the local chapter of the Audubon Society, the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, offers monthly guided field trips to help hone birding skills. OPAS also holds general meetings beginning at 7 p.m. the third Wednesday each month with presentations by guest speakers on many topics dealing with the natural world.

One of the first birds I learned to identify was the black-capped chickadee. It is the easiest bird to learn to spot at feeders or in the field. Regardless of sex or age, the bird is easily distinguished by a black cap that extends over its eyes and white cheeks on an oversized round head, a white bib, whitish belly and buffy sides with a grey back on a small body. It is so adorable that it has become a favorite of greeting card illustrators who anthropomorphize smiles on the birds' roly-poly faces and draw them by themselves or in friendly groups atop holly branches. Its call also is easy to remember, "chickadee dee dee."

There are five species of chickadees in North America, the chestnut-backed chickadee is the most common in our area, but populations of the black-capped chickadees have been increasing on the Olympic Peninsula. They most likely are to be found in deciduous or mixed woodlands but can be found in any habitat that has trees or woody shrubs, from forests to suburban neighborhoods and parks. They frequently nest in birch or alder trees.

Chickadees are one of the easiest birds to attract to feeders with suet, sunflower and peanuts. They can hang easily on suspended feeders that sway in the wind and are among those birds that visit window feeders. Lively, agile and acrobatic, they can hang upside down from twigs or a feeder and seem to bounce in flight.

Black-capped chickadees are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. They are cavity-nesters and take advantage of existing hollows including old woodpecker or other natural holes and occasionally nest boxes. Black-capped chickadees also will excavate or expand their own cavities in rotten wood. Both sexes excavate but only the female builds the nest, which usually begins with a foundation of moss and is lined with soft hair. The female incubates six to eight eggs for 12-13 days. The male brings food to the female as she sits on the eggs. In the first few days after the young hatch, the female broods the young almost continuously, making sure their body temperature remains constant. As the young grow, both male and female parents provide food. The young leave the nest when they are 14-16 days old but stay on the breeding territory for another three to four weeks before heading off on their own.

During breeding season black-capped chickadees are territorial but they travel in flocks in the winter season. These flocks can include other species but the black-capped chickadee will be the most numerous.

These birds cache food in the fall and reclaim it up to a month later. The majority of their diet is insects, spiders and feeder-supplied sunflower seeds in the winter, caterpillars are added to the summer diet.

There are quite a few things you can do to attract black-capped chickadees to your backyard:

• Because these little birds are in constant motion, they will appreciate high energy food such as suet.

• Planting willow, alder and birch trees provides future nesting habitat for chickadees. Plant dense groupings of shrubby hemlock, pine, birch, aspen or elm in front of mature trees.

• Berry bushes such as blueberry, elderberry and bay berries are appealing to black-capped chickadees.

• Stock tubular feeders in the winter especially with black oil sunflower seeds or peanut kernels.

• Naturally curious, black-capped chickadees can be trained to eat peanuts or walnuts from your hand.

• Fill platform feeders with peanuts and fresh or dried blueberries.

• Place filled suet feeders near tree trunks.

• You can smear peanut butter on trunks and tree branches to attract black-capped chickadees.

• Always make sure you offer water that is fresh and clean.

• Chickadees are cavity nesters, place chickadee-specific bird houses to encourage backyard nesting. Line with wood chips to persuade them the box is fresh and acceptable. Mount box on trunk of pine, birch, aspen or elm. To protect eggs and nestlings and deter wrens, squirrels and mice jumping into the boxes, place the nest box far into the wooded area back from other trees and branches. While the orientation of the entrance may not matter, they do seem to prefer unobstructed paths to the entrance.

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