Who Will Nest Here?

Black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches recently explored this cavity in our apple tree.

Our beacon apple tree is pushing 80 years old. It’s dropped a few limbs over time; some splintered under the weight of apples, others weakened with age and rot. One old limb bears a small cavity. “So what?” you think —  unless you’re a chickadee, nuthatch or other cavity dweller looking for a nesting site. All three species frequently explore and tussle over this cavity, and I believe the chickadees are winning.

One sunny, frigid afternoon, a downy woodpecker pair ducked in and out of the cavity and were confronted and chased away by a black-capped chickadee. A curious white-breasted nuthatch also sidled over for a peek and was waved off by the chickadee. Later, three chickadees fluttered around the opening until two chased off the third. The remaining pair excavated and removed wood chips from the cavity interior; evidence they are preparing a nesting site! The male sings his territorial “fee-bee” (sometimes “fee-bee-bee”) song. I first heard him sing on December 31. 

One member of the black-capped chickadee pair (Poecile atricapillus) removes wood chips from the apple tree cavity.

Chickadees deposit excavated wood chips away from the nest site to avoid leaving signs for predators.

Will this pair nest in our apple tree? Black-capped chickadees prepare multiple nesting sites before the female chooses one, so we won’t know for a few weeks. Wherever they nest, the female will line the tree cavity with moss, soft plant fibers, feathers, hair and fur. She will lay 1-13 (usually 6-8) white eggs marked with reddish-brown spots. The female incubates the eggs and the male feeds her on the nest. Once the hatchlings are old enough to be alone for a short time, both parents feed them. Insects (including their eggs and caterpillars) and spiders comprise most of their high-protein summer diet. Black-capped chickadees also eat other small invertebrates, seeds, nuts and berries. They’ll visit seed and suet feeders in the winter. One cold afternoon, as I topped off our sunflower seed feeder, a cheeky chickadee landed on the edge of my filling-cup, snatched a seed off the top and flew into our arbor vitae hedge to either eat its treat, or cache it for another day.

Black-capped chickadees remain in Minnesota year round.  They are common in much of the northern United States and most of Canada.

I enjoy the chickadees’ curiosity, high-energy antics and their melodious breeding calls, especially as winter drags on. Stay tuned to find out whether or not they nest in our apple tree.

Further Reading

Black-capped Chickadee; Audubon Bird Guide

Chickadee Delight. The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. February 3, 2020.

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. (First edition). New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

4 thoughts on “Who Will Nest Here?

  1. It is wonderful to see such fun outdoors when most of us are dreading setting foot outside in these frigid temperatures!
    I love your photos . . . Especially the picture of the chickadee in flight. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Thank you, Lisa! Even at -19˚F this morning, the chickadees were busy flying between the white oak sapling and the menagerie that we call a hedge. So happy to see them.

  2. I love your stories, Beth! Frank used to hunt with his dad a little farther north of here, and he tells me that as he sat in his deer stand sometimes a Black Capped would fly in and briefly land on the barrel of his gun. They certainly are industrious little creatures! Here’s hoping you win the Chickadee lottery!
    Linda

    • Hi Linda, It’s so good to hear from you! Thanks for sharing Frank’s story. Chickadees are so companionable! I remember how much Ben enjoyed them (still does). One time on a school field trip to Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center the kids helped band several birds. Ben told about how a black-capped chickadee was all cuddled up in the bander’s hand and needed a few little pats on the bottom to get it to leave! Ben held a dark-eyed junco for banding. He said it was the softest thing he’s ever touched. I’ve asked him many times if he’s held anything softer, and so far the reply is always no. Wonderful memories!

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