Birds & Blooms
A Sweet Southern Song
Attract friendly Carolina chickadees with suet, peanuts and more.
Tiny and chipper, chickadees are among the first backyard birds that many recognize, thanks to their familiar, distinctive chick-a-dee-dee call. But a few things set the Carolina chickadee apart from the others.
Carolina chickadees are found year-round in the southeastern United States, as far north as Pennsylvania and all the way west to mid-texas. Their range overlaps a bit with the more northern (and slightly larger) black-capped chickadee in a very narrow zone that stretches from New Jersey to Kansas. Telling the two species apart in those areas can be tricky. Both have the same black caps and bibs, but Carolina chickadees have duller white coloring on the cheek patch and a bit less white on their tail and wing feathers.
“The easiest way to tell them apart is by sound,” says Robyn Bailey, Nestwatch Project Leader with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “The Carolina chickadee’s song is four to six notes, and it has a broader song repertoire than the black-capped’s simple fee-bee song.”
Insects and spiders make up about 90% of a Carolina’s diet during the warmer months. The birds also enjoy berries and happily visit feeders for suet, peanut chips and sunflower seeds.
Those bug-eating tendencies mean that backyard birders should take extra precautions to help attract and protect them. “This includes not spraying pesticides in our gardens and lawns, and planting native fruit-producing shrubs like blackberry and Virginia creeper,” Robyn says.
Mating pairs will often stay together for several years at a time, seeking out cavities in trees. Females build nests of moss, bark and animal fur, then lay about six jelly bean-sized eggs in a single clutch. They also use nest boxes with entrance holes that measure 1⅛ inches in diameter. Robyn recommends visiting Nestwatch’s website for free birdhouse plans, placement tips and more.
Though Carolina chickadees are common, recent research indicates their numbers are falling. “It’s an important reminder that even common backyard species can decline if we’re not careful,” Robyn warns. Help support them and other birds by regularly cleaning feeders and birdbaths, adding predator guards to nest boxes, and keeping cats indoors. Responsible birders can help keep these little fliers happy and healthy long into the future.
When I moved to North Carolina from New York, I dismissed common birds like this one. Then it dawned on me—though they look practically identical, I was seeing Carolina chickadees now, not the black-capped ones I knew from the Northeast!”
Christine Mccluskey CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA