A chickadee, blissfully unaware of the cold, dashes in to a bird feeder, picks up a seed in its beak and flits to a nearby shrub. There, the little bird perches on a branch, and then grips the seed between its toes to batter open the shell with its short beak.

In the summertime, ’dees often hang upside down from a twig, searching under leaves for insects. Or they may cling to a tree trunk, casting a bright eye into bark furrows for a spider or insect.

Chickadees have distinctive black and white markings that help us identify them, but their quick energy and small size are even more telling — those two together signal that the bird you’re watching is a ’dee. They’re tiny dynamos and they head up most everyone’s list of favorite birds.

Think about it: Have you ever seen a chickadee sitting idly on a branch? They seem to be in constant motion, never pausing to catch a breath. We see robins loafing, cardinals perching and even hyperactive hummingbirds sometimes sitting motionless on a twig. But chickadees are on the move from dawn to dusk. And all that activity burns up a lot of calories.

They’re a well-studied species, and a great deal of what is known about them centers on their feeding behavior. Chickadees are at home in the forest, or more likely, the edges of the forest. A winter flock, often made up of six to 10 chickadees, forages by moving rapidly through the bare trees, calling to each other as they busily search trunks and twigs for food. They sound truly gleeful when they discover a source of insects or fruit and broadcast their find to the rest of the flock.

Other birds, like nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets, often fall in with a moving group of chickadees to scour the woodlands in winter. This mixed flock, with chickadees in the lead, actively probes for spider eggs, insect larvae and hibernating insects.

Natural leaders

In springtime, chickadees may have an entourage that includes migrating warblers as the ’dees flit from tree to tree. Many small birds know that following chickadees can lead to good sources of caterpillars and insect eggs, ideal foods for migrants, and ’dees.

’Dees flit, hop and cling as they forage, enjoying a unique advantage — specialized leg muscles that allow them to hang upside down for a bottoms-up view as they forage. They’re innately curious, often the first birds to try a new food or investigate some change in the neighborhood.

The little birds pair up in the fall, but don’t begin acting territorial until early spring. As the days grow longer, the dominant pair in the chickadee flock claims a territory and begins to assert itself. They aggressively force other ’dees to move away to find their own nesting and feeding areas.

A change in diet

Insects make up 50 percent of their winter diet, but in springtime they switch it up and insects comprise up to 80 percent of an adult chickadee’s diet (and nearly 100 percent of the food brought to feed nestlings is insect matter). All those caterpillars hatching out on leaves and twigs are a feast for hungry birds.

And as many of us know, ’dees are fans of bird feeders, too. In my backyard, we offer safflower seeds and shelled sunflower pieces, and chickadees show up many times a day on their foraging rounds through the neighborhood.

There’s just something endearing about chickadees. Nicholas Lund, who posts as the National Audubon Society’s “Birdist,” says about them, “They’re cute. They make a lot of noise to let you know they’re coming. No one has ever been disappointed to see a chickadee.”

Small as they are, chickadees offer a good role model to other birds (and maybe humans, too): Work hard, keep your bright eyes open for opportunity and never, ever slow down.

 

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.