Why it’s difficult to tally your backyard chickadees

backyard chickadees
Black-capped Chickadee at a suet feeder. Photo by Joan Wiitanen

The Black-capped Chickadee is one of the trickiest birds to count. Chickadee flock size varies from five or six to more than a dozen, and each flock seems to wander through its winter range along a route, taking it through the best areas several times a day. The routes of more than one flock may intersect at quality feeders.

People in remote northern forests may have non-stop chickadee activity all day — because several different flocks are visiting. People in good suburban habitat with many feeding stations may see a flurry of chickadee activity every couple of hours but no chickadees the rest of the time, indicating that only one or two flocks are coming by.

It’s hard to see more than one or two chickadees at any feeder at one time — each one keeps coming and going. Unlike many birds, chickadees never dine side by side. Like fictional Norwegian bachelor farmers, chickadees are reserved, each waiting its turn at the smorgasbord, then taking a small serving off to eat in seclusion before returning for seconds. How can you possibly count them?

The most accurate way is to find a bird bander who will band as many chickadees as possible in your yard starting in late fall, when flocks have solidified. Spend a few hours tallying how many chickadees you see with bands and how many without. Knowing the number of banded birds, the ratio of banded to unbanded birds will help you calculate the total.

But of course, most of us can’t find a bander with the time and resources to band our backyard chickadees, so we resort to other tactics. When I was in a hospital in downtown Duluth after having a baby, I noticed a chickadee flock passing by my corner window five or six times a day, always following the same path. The hospital was on an urban block with no suitable habitat but not far from a wooded vacant lot and a park. Each time I was at the window for the start and finish of the chickadee parade, I counted 14 individuals passing by one by one. That was an ideal situation for counting a flock.

My own backyard has too many trees for easy counting. If I’m standing on my street when a flock arrives from the other side, I can count them cross the road, but most flocks come in from other directions. Once a flock arrives, the chickadees spread out to eat, coming into the feeder from every which way.

If you spot a chickadee with a unique physical or behavioral trait that makes it recognizable, how often do you notice that one? That may give you an idea of how many flocks are visiting and how many birds are in the flock besides the special one.

Counting chickadees is tricky but fun; it’s also useful in providing more accurate data for Christmas Bird Counts and fall and winter eBirding. And most of us discover we have more chickadees than we thought, gratifying evidence that our chickadees can count on us.

This article was first published in the November/December 2019 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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