We'll discuss how you can attract Black-capped Chickadees to your backyard and to your bird feeder by the following means:
- Plant trees and shrubs that chickadees can use for food and shelter
- Provide foods that chickadees love
- Select bird feeders specifically for chickadees
- Provide a bird house or nest box that is ideal for chickadees
- Bring a water feature into your backyard landscaping
Photo by Greg Gillson
Overview: Black-capped Chickadees in your backyardBlack-capped Chickadees are resident across the northern half of the United States and northward from Alaska to Newfoundland. They are found southward from Georgia to Missouri to New Mexico and northern California. They are found in deciduous and mixed woods. And, wonderfully, they are easily attracted to residential backyards!
There are 7 types of chickadees in North America. The Black-capped is the most widely distributed. But even if you live outside the range of Black-capped Chickadees, you may live within the range of one of the other chickadee species. This guide to attracting chickadees will work for these other species as well.
Like most chickadees Black-capped have black caps(!) and bibs. They have a white face. The back is dull gray, with a slight greenish cast. The under parts are buffy. These field marks will separate Black-capped Chickadees from other North American chickadees except Carolina Chickadee of the southeastern US, which is subtly different. Black-capped Chickadees have a richer buff color on the underparts, rather than a paler grayish or cream. The edges of the wing coverts on Black-capped Chickadees are obviously edged white. This feature is much more subdued or lacking on Carolina Chickadees.
Black-capped Chickadees give a slightly husky "chick-a-dee-dee" call. They also have a sweet whistled song: "fee-bee-bee."
Chickadees are social, usually found in small straggling flocks. In winter they may make up the core of mixed-species feeding flocks. Such flocks frequently include kinglets, nuthatches, creepers, downy woodpeckers, wrens, warblers, vireos and other small birds. Chickadees feed on the tips of trees and bushes, hanging acrobatically as they search for food.
Habitat: Trees and plants that attract Black-capped ChickadeesThis species resides in deciduous and woodland edges mixed with conifers. They are found in damp situations with willows and cottonwoods. They favor alder and birch for nesting (reference), which I'll discuss further, below.
If your neighborhood is bare of larger trees or thickets, and no one else around you is feeding birds, it may takes some time to attract these spunky little birds. How do you attract Black-capped Chickadees if that is the case?
In the long term, you can plant pines or other conifers that will grow into a place chickadees can seek shelter or food in the future years to come. Oaks will be a favorite, though they grow slowly. You may be able to plant faster growing trees or shrubby thickets such as alder, birch, elm, sumac and willow.
You should also consider planting sunflowers, blueberries, evergreen huckleberry or other similar bushes. Plants that bear small fruit and berries may be the fastest growing way to bring chickadees into your backyard. Check your local nurseries. Look for evergreen shrubs that are used for privacy hedges. Most nurseries will have a selection of native plants that should grow well and attract local birds.
Remember, though, that small hedges and the like may be more valuable for the chickadees to hide in and glean insects. The berries are just an added bonus. Let's look closer at what chickadees eat.
Diet: Bird foods to attract Black-capped ChickadeesBlack-capped Chickadees are omnivorous. They eat insects, berries, seeds, invertebrates. In winter the ratio of plants to animals is about even. But in spring and summer the chickadees diet is primarily invertebrates (reference).
They hop from branch to branch gleaning insects and other food from the tips of branches. They sometimes engage in hover-gleaning: hovering in the air on rapidly beating wings while they pick food from nearby twig or leaf. They frequently hang upside down from branches as they feed.
When food is abundant chickadees will cache excess food rather than consume it. They store food for later use, especially in fall and winter. These food caches are all in different locations--they do not store multiple items in a cache (reference). And they are excellent at remembering where they stored all their food caches!
This is all very interesting, but you are no doubt wondering: "How do I attract chickadees to my bird feeder?" Some of the favorite foods of Black-capped Chickadees include peanuts (or peanut pieces) and suet. So that is an excellent place to start. Chickadees love peanut butter! Spread peanut butter into the crevices of tree bark or insert it into hole on a hanging log feeder or pine cone (source).
Chickadees will chow down on mealworms. Mealworms are fed as an occasional treat, not a staple of the bird feeder. I had to look this up, because I haven't fed birds mealworms myself (source). Mealworms are the larvae of Darkling Beetle. I had no idea that in addition to dried mealworms, you can also buy live mealworms to feed birds. Live mealworms are kept at 40F to keep them from maturing into pupae and beetles. Yep, in your fridge! They are fed to birds in a feeder with a lip that keeps them from crawling out. Are you ready to try that?
What is the best bird seed for chickadees? No doubt about it. Chickadees love black oil sunflower seeds. This is far more economical than buying a bird seed mix with many types of seeds the chickadee probably won't eat. Chickadees grab one seed at a time, then fly to a branch away from the feeder to pound open the shell to get at the kernel inside.
FeedersSo, now, what kind of feeders do chickadees like? Chickadees have no problem with small, hanging feeders that sway on a chain. In fact, these types of swinging feeders are very difficult for larger, more unwelcome birds such as jays and starlings to feed from. So these are ideal for chickadees.
Suet feeders, which are usually a block of fat or lard in a wire cage, are readily visited by Black-capped Chickadees. What kind of suet do chickadees like? Rather than plain, or one with seeds, try finding a suet cake with nuts and berries. The chickadees should love that!
Keep such suet feeders higher off the ground away from dogs. Get rid of any suet that turns rancid, and stop offering suet when the weather turns warm and it begins to melt or turns bad. Usually, though, suet is so prized that it doesn't last long in the feeder. If you put the suet cage on a longer chain it will swing wildly when heavy starlings try to feed and they'll fly off. Chickadees and smaller birds won't cause the swinging. Woodpeckers have strong feet and will be able to hang on without problem.
Chickadees will visit all feeders, but a tube feeder with black oil sunflowers seems to be their favorite. A squirrel-proof feeder, or one with a cage around it to keep out larger birds, will ensure that more aggressive birds don't drive off the chickadees.
NestingBlack-capped Chickadees nest in old woodpecker holes, especially in birch and alder. Since these are likely in short supply in towns and residential neighborhoods, consider putting up a nest box.
The size of the nest box should be 5x5 inches on the floor and 8 inches high. The diameter of the entrance hole should be 1-1/8 inches, and the top of it about 1 inch down from the top. The nest box should be placed from 5 to 15 feet off the ground (source).
The 1-1/8 inch diameter entrance hole is the most important part. Any larger and the nest box will likely be taken over by House Sparrows or swallows. With this smaller hole, the chickadees will be competing primarily with nuthatches and wrens. Even so, Black-capped Chickadees may lose that battle, as they aren't as aggressive.
Black-capped Chickadees lay from 1-13 eggs that hatch in about 2 weeks. Two weeks after that they may begin leaving the nest! Then they'll be visiting your birdbath and feeders.
Attracting chickadees to nest boxes is generally not too difficult, if they are around. Add one inch of wood shavings to the bottom of the nest box, rather than leaving it bare. Always clean out old nest boxes in February and March, before the new nesting season starts.
Water: Drinking and bathingAn article on attracting chickadees would not be complete without discussing water. All birds need clean water for drinking and bathing. They need water in both summer and winter--all year round.
Unfortunately, bird baths can foul quickly. Algae, bacteria, mold, leaves and dirt, mosquitoes. All these can pollute your bird's water. When you buy a birdbath, make sure you also buy a sturdy scrub brush and a bottle of 10% bleach solution (hydrogen peroxide is an alternative). Then, plan on cleaning it up to 3 times per week in summer. If you are unable or unwilling to keep your birdbath clean, then it would be better not to have one. A dirty birdbath can spread disease to the birds.
A simple birdbath you purchase at the local garden department is likely to be too deep for many smaller birds. Encourage small birds to use your bird bath by placing a large flat stone so that it is just below the surface. Place a branch or perch just above the water so the birds don't even have to get their feet wet to get a drink. Most decorative fountains and birdbaths are too big, and circulate too much water, to make birds comfortable using them. They also may be too smooth. Birdbaths should be rough so that birds will not slip.
Chickadees and other birds are really attracted to dripping water. Not necessarily a solid flow, but a trickle or drip. I have seen a two-tiered solar-powered birdbath that might be perfect. There are also solar bubblers. So many options!
Birds need drinking water in winter. Consider a heated bird bath if you live where water freezes in winter.
ConclusionIf you live in the northern half of the US or Canada, attracting Black-capped Chickadees to your backyard and feeder is usually not difficult. In fact, the curious chickadees may be the first birds to visit your new feeders.
Even if the surrounding neighborhood is bare of thickets or tall trees you may be able to attract chickadees to your backyard by planting fast growing hedges or leafy trees. These birds tend to spread out into more habitats in winter. So even if it appears there aren't any chickadees near your home, some may wander by in winter. One they find your feeder they're likely to be a regular visitor.
Peanuts, peanut butter, black oil sunflower seeds and suet will quickly be noticed by any chickadees that happen by. Feed the sunflower seeds from a tube feeder, perhaps with a squirrel baffle or cage around it.
And don't forget to add water to your bird feeding station. A heated birdbath may be appreciated in northern climes. And make sure there is a shallow portion of the birdbath for smaller birds.
You can even put up a nest box and possibly enjoy hosting a Black-capped Chickadee family for the summer.
I certainly hope that Black-capped Chickadees become regular visitors to your backyard and feeder!