Chickadee Survival

Emily White


Winter’s on its way. Have you ever wondered how a tiny bird like the black-capped chickadee survives in a climate that has us donning 4 layers of heavy clothing before venturing outside?
Of course a chickadee wears its own down coat year round, but interestingly, it actually increases the feather count by as much as 30% during winter. Even with the increase in fluff though, a chickadee has a tough job keeping warm.
During the day, they flit, flap and fly, hearts speeding to an amazing 2000 beats per minute as their metabolisms race to produce enough heat. The energy going into heat production comes from their food. A bird will eat 20 times as much on a winter day as it does in warmer months, and every scrap of food – every insect egg, every sunflower seed, every bit of feeder suet – is necessary if the bird is to survive the night.
In its desperation for sustenance, a chickadee is an opportunistic eater. You’ve likely noticed at your feeder stations that chickadees will take advantage of many different offerings. Sunflower seed, peanuts, safflower, nyjer seed and suet are all favourites.
On occasions when it finds more food than it can eat right away the chickadee stashes the remains in a handy cache, like a squirrel storing up acorns for later use. One study found that a chickadee could recall the location of a cache as many as 28 days after stashing it.
Although feeding keeps a chickadee moving and keeps it warm, it needs additional strategies at night. When the sun goes down, chickadees will often sleep piled together inside tree cavities or birdhouses. In these dens, the chickadees pile together out of the wind. If a chickadee kept up its hectic metabolic rate all night, though, it would starve to death by morning. Instead, once the bird is snuggled in, its heart rate slows to a sedate (for a chickadee) 500 beats per minute, and its body temperature plummets as much as 20 degrees.
The human equivalent of the chickadee’s night-time torpor would be an ability to drop the heart rate to 15-20 beats per minute and the body temperature to just below 80 degrees.
These are the strategies that make the chickadee so successful in an often harsh climate. Its success makes it a favourite feeder bird year round. See us at Featherfields’ for a large selection of feeders, birdseed, birdhouses and birdbaths to help you attract these cute little guys to your yard.

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