Leaf Rustlers - Jim Dillard
Spring 2004  

Poecile carolinensis


Prowling through our post oak woodlands here in Northcentral Texas can be rewarding for nature observers, even during the leafless winter months. They may be leafless, but they’re not lifeless. Stand or sit still long enough and you’re likely to see or hear any of a number of native winter birds or other critters scurrying about foraging for seeds or insects. Like the other day when my attention was drawn to sounds coming from a post oak thicket, of a bird scolding some unfortunate intruder – sbuzz-sbuzz-sbuzz-sbuzz! I eased up behind an old rotting post oak and peered around it. There, hunkered down on a limb about midway up in a blackjack oak sat a little screech owl. Apparently, his cammo feather pattern had betrayed him. He’d been spied by an annoying and fussy Carolina chickadee bent on telling the whole wide world where he was. So much for a nice quiet snooze! Before long, about a dozen more chickadees and tufted titmice showed up and began to mob and harass him. He finally got the message he wasn’t welcome and reluctantly skedaddled.

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are year round residents here in Northcentral Texas and throughout most of the eastern, northern and central parts of the state. Audubon first collected and identified this species in South Carolina, thus the carolinensis portion of the scientific name. Their old genus name Parus has been changed to Poecile due to recent DNA and DNA-hybridization studies that now separate all species of the Family Paridae into 6 different genera.

The black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapilla), which is found in the northern US and Canada, has not been officially documented in Texas, according to many sources. Some people incorrectly use that name when referring to our Texas chickadee species. Even the pros have difficulty telling them apart, and unless they can hear their call, even they’re not sure who’s who. Fortunately here in Texas, we don’t have that problem. If you see or hear a chickadee, bank on it being a Carolina chickadee. They prefer wooded areas and are common even in urban settings where there’s a scattering of trees, brush and vines.

At 4 1/2 inches in length, Carolina chickadees are small black, white and gray birds with a distinctive black cap and bib, white face and breast, and gray wings. He or she chickadees look alike and tip the scales at about 0.4 of an ounce. Their small sharp conical bill is used to probe under bark for insects, larvae, eggs and spiders. They’ll also eat seeds and berries and snatch flying insects on the wing. Specialized leg muscles enable them to hang on and feed upside down on the underside of small limbs and on buds at stem tips. Their flight is short and fluttering with rapid wing beats that enable them to easily maneuver through trees and brush.

These little busy-bodies will also come to backyard bird feeders, using what I call the ‘snatch-and-fly’ technique. I often see them take just one sunflower seed at a time from my feeder and fly to a limb where they hold it between their toes, crack it open and eat the kernel. They’ll also forage with small groups of other bird species such as titmice, woodpeckers, brown creepers, kinglets and nuthatches to locate food more efficiently using the ‘team effort’ strategy. That way, they can all cover more ground and not waste time hunting where other birds have already been.

Their call is the familiar chick-a-dee-dee-dee and song fee-bee fee-bay: black-capped chickadees sing only fee-bee. Disturb a she-chickadee on her nest and she’ll likely hiss at you. I find great sport in calling up nosy Carolina chickadees by imitating the soft, raspy sbuzz-sbuzz-sbuzz-sbuzz sound (called a shrad) they make when a predator has been spotted. The tape recorded call of a screech owl also works. They just can’t seem to ignore it, thinking a fellow chickadee has spotted an owl or predator and needs help evicting the intruder. Try it – you’ll like it!

What’s important to know about chickadees is that they’re cavity nesters: they nest in holes in dead trees or other cavities they find to their liking. Carolina chickadees also hollow out and enlarge old woodpecker holes as nesting sites. Nests are lined with grass, feathers, strings, fur, bark strips, and plant down. They lay 6-8 small white eggs, spotted at the big end with reddish brown, which hatch in 11-13 days. The female does most of the incubating and is fed by the male. They’re thought to mate for life which may be 10 or more years. Chick chickadees leave the nest in a couple of weeks to chick-a-dee-dee-dee on their own.

They’ll also use nest boxes put up in town or out in the country. If you build one, be sure the entrance hole is no larger than 1 1/8 inches. Any size larger will allow those dadgum house sparrows in and they’ll take over. Don’t put a perch below the hole – they don’t need it. Put nest boxes up during the early winter because if it’s mild, chickadees may begin nesting in mid-February. Since they only raise one brood, clean out the box after the young have fledged. If you’re a landowner, leaving some standing dead trees for use by chickadees is, as Martha would say, ‘a good thing!’ These ‘snags’ provide a microcosm of habitat for all kinds of other critters as well.

Carolina chickadees are delightful and full of pizzazz. Their trusting and inquisitive disposition makes them one of the most observable birds found here in the Cross Timbers. Heck, with just a little coaxing, they’ll even come to you to check you out and greet you with a friendly Texas chick-a-dee-dee--howdy!

Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!

Cross Timbers Chapter, Texas Master Naturalist, Inc.   9601 Fossil Ridge Rd.   Fort Worth TX 76135

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