Chickadees are cheerful little birds that keep us company through the long White Mountain winters. They are known by site with their familiar black cap and bib and their white cheeks. When you are out in the woods, listen for the familiar “chickadee-dee-dee” call and the two note “fee-bee” call. Closely related are the Boreal Chickadees distinguished by their brown caps and their nasal “Chicka-Dee” call, found at higher elevations in the boreal forest.
While many other birds migrate to warmer climes, Chickadees adapt to the short days and cold nights in a number of fascinating ways.
Chickadees cache seeds for short term use and for use later in the winter. Their brains actually swell in the fall to enable increased capacity to store and retrieve information.
On the coldest nights Chickadees can enter into a state of regulated hypothermia. Their daytime body temperature of 107 °F (42 °C) can be lowered to 86 °F (30 °C) during the night allowing the birds to conserve vital energy reserves.
Chickadees change their diets from a protein-rich insect diet to a fat-rich seed diet to increase fat deposits that are important energy reserves for the birds.
Chickadees increase their total feather mass by almost 30% for the winter. Feathers covering the birds are just as important for heat conservation as for flight. The loose underlying down feathers have superb insulating qualities with outer contoured feathers providing a wind and water barrier.
During the long winter nights, Chickadees group together in trees and cavities . By grouping together in a confined space, Chickadees are able to use their escaping body heat to warm the air around them and save a great deal of metabolic energy.
So on your next winter outing, listen for these feathered wonders of winter and appreciate how cheerfully these little birds adapt to the challenges of long nights and short days.
Illustrations by Cindy House