Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Chickadee Update

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Every month I provide a Zoom program for supporters of my podcast and blog. On May 1, I had a 15-minute “pre-game show” to bring people up to date on the chickadees that had been excavating a nest cavity and then building a nest in our dead cherry tree, and I delivered the sad news that they’d abandoned the cavity after a starling started examining it. I was brokenhearted. And I was wrong.  

Starling taking over

Chickadees are pretty conspicuous as they excavate. It’s time-consuming work that involves both the male and female hacking away into the tree pretty much constantly for days—my two chickadees were easy to watch as they hacked away at the interior and carried out wood chips from April 10 through the 22.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

After that, I got a few glimpses of them carrying nesting material in, but activity at the nest was nowhere near as conspicuous as when they were excavating. And right when I was hardly ever seeing the birds near the nest, my trail cam caught a Hairy Woodpecker inspecting it the nest hole and then a starling sticking its head way, way in. And at that point I stopped seeing the chickadees visiting. I started assuming they had abandoned ship, and then my cam caught a couple of trips where one bird left the nest with what looked like pink fluffy nesting material. That seemed to confirm that they were giving up, scavenging nesting materials from their first nest to work on a second. But it’s not over till it’s over. On May 3, when I checked the cam photos and videos, I saw several shots of a bird leaving or entering the cavity, including one from that day at 2:10 pm which showed one chickadee leave the cavity, turn around at the entrance to peek in, and fly off; then a second bird left and followed it. Two chickadees aren’t supposed to be in the cavity together, but it’s possible the male went in to give the female a bit of food, and then she took a break to forage with him.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

So apparently the chickadees really are nesting here. And there weren’t any more cam shots of a woodpecker or starling bothering them. So far I haven’t seen any cam photos or videos of a bird entering with food, but they’re coming and going very quickly, so their movement may be triggering the cam but they’re getting in or out in the split second before the first photo gets taken. 

The minimum number of days it’s supposed to take chickadees to build a nest is 2, so theoretically, this female could have finished construction as early as April 24, but usually it takes more like 4 or 5 days. If she laid the first egg on the 24th, she could have produced a large clutch by now, and incubation could be starting. But it’s more likely that she didn’t start laying until April 26th or 27th, and is still in the laying stage. That would explain why we haven’t seen the male enter the cavity with food yet. 

My chickadees seem to know and trust me—indeed, on May 4, I’d opened my double-hung window from the top for photos and left it open when I went to my desk. A chickadee must have arrived wanting mealworms while Evening Grosbeaks were filling the window feeder, so it flew to the top of the open window, the front half of its body in my office, and it chattered at me to fork over some mealworms, and stayed right there as I got the mealworm bucket. So I’m not too worried about scaring my chickadees, but I don’t want to press my luck or add to the stresses of nesting, so I’m only checking the cam photos every two or three days. I hope I can figure out from the cam pictures when they start incubating, and when the chicks hatch. Nesting is so exciting and lovely and magical, but a good outcome is far from guaranteed. I’m not too scared—at this point in May, it’s way more realistic to predict a happy outcome for a chickadee nesting season than, say, a Chicago Cubs’ baseball season.