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Black-Capped Chickadee: Why This Chick is Important to Our Ecosystems

November 23, 2021

The black-capped chickadee is not just a beautiful bird, it is also an important part of the ecosystem. The black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapilus) lives in Canada and parts of the United States' north woods, as well as high mountains in southern Appalachia. It provides a service to our environment by controlling pests, pollinating plants and distributing seeds. The diet of the chickadee includes berries, seeds, and insects caught during brief flights in the air. These seeds range from various types of berries including juniper, blackberry, oak, and black oil sunflower seeds taken from bird feeders. Chickadees have been known to live up to six years with one male mating for life with one female while nesting in tree cavities lined with moss or other vegetation such as leaves.


General Diet

Black-capped chickadees choose prey in accordance with its availability. Gleaned insect food is generally found on tree bark on twigs, branches, and boles, as well as the leaves, fruits, and flowers of trees. Chickadees feed on caterpillars throughout the year, which are an important source of food for nestling chickadees. Chickadees have been known to eat seeds from the cones of jack pine and red pine, but these are not preferred foods for this bird species. Insect and spider eggs account for a significant percentage of the winter diet, and although plant material is rarely consumed throughout most of the year, seeds from trees and shrubs may make up about half of the diet. Giant ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) seeds are favorite winter meals for weeds. Chickadees are adaptable foragers, foraging from the ground to tree tops in a variety of settings. They like to forage at low or medium heights in trees and shrubs, however they will also do so at high altitudes. Chickadees in British Columbia preferred foraging within 1.5 m (5.0 ft) of the ground, according to a study published in Animal Behavior.

Related: How Do Birds Provide Ecosystems Services?


Canopy Research

In western Washington, black-capped chickadees selected their zones before the quantity of insect food (particularly caterpillars) became apparent. It appears that the chickadees used canopy volume as a proxy for food availability since chickadee abundance was clearly linked to canopy volume. Caterpillars feed on leaves, and their numbers should change in proportion to the total amount of foliage. There was a strong positive connection between the combined foliage weight and canopy volume, suggesting that canopy volume may be used as an excellent predictor of insect population. The highest chickadee densities occurred at canopy volumes of about 10.2 m^3 of foliage/1 m 2 of ground surface (33.5 ftVft2 ).

The volume of a tree's canopy is equal to the living foliage of that tree, deciduous and coniferous trees alike. Suitability will decrease to zero as canopy volume approaches zero.  In general, chickadees prefer habitats with a canopy volume of up to 100 ft^(11) /acre.


Indicator Species

The black-capped chickadee is an indicator species because it suggests that the habitat meets its own ecological requirements and therefore may be suitable for other bird species as well. By logging the presence of the black-capped chickadee we can derived valuable information. Starting with the minimum living space defined as the minimal amount of area that must be covered before a species will take up residence there. Although Gal 1i et al. (1976) claim that black-capped chickadees may require particular forest sizes, other research indicates that these chickadees will nest in hedgerows and field borders.

The black-capped chickadee's year-round food supply is primarily derived from trees. It is expected that a measurement of either tree canopy closure and the average height of overstory trees or canopy volume of trees per area of ground surface can provide an adequate evaluation of food suitability for the chickadee. It is assumed that optimum canopy closures occur between 50 and 75%. For an entire closed canopy, the lack of foliage in the middle and lower canopy layers will result in a reduced value. If tree heights are optimal, black-capped chickadees may use habitats with a low canopy closure. Simultaneously, habitats with short trees might be suitable if canopy closures are moderate.

Related: How to Educate and Promote Environmental Awareness in 2021


Nesting Environment

The black-capped chickadee is a secondary cavity nester. They prefer to nest in tiny dead or hollow trees and may only dig through soft or rotten wood. Because of this, it is thought that the amount of little flaws influences reproductive suitability. Chickadees typically breed in deciduous trees rather than evergreens when given the choice between these two habitats. Black-caps are also not reliant on natural cavities for nesting space and have adapted to utilizing nest boxes created specifically for cavity-nesting birds.

A chickadee's nest is made up of moss, grasses and small twigs held together with spiderwebs and lined inside with fine roots, feathers or fur. The birds pick the lining material from live plants nearby their nests if available; otherwise they take it from old nests. The birds prefer to use material that is pliable, clean and soft for lining their nests. Nesting success can be affected by the amount of available nesting materials in an area. Black-capped chickadees are capable of producing four or five broods per breeding season when conditions are ideal. If food sources remain abundant, they will renest after a nest has been depredated.

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