Diary for April 20, 2012: "Checked the bird house in our backyard that the black-capped chickadee has been visiting and found out that it contains five eggs."
April 22: "Checked box again, and now there are six eggs." I thought this was a bit early and credited it to our warm spring.
Diary entry for April 29: "Watched a pair of black-capped chickadees carrying nesting materials to another bird house about 15 feet away from the house that has six eggs." When I checked this nest it was only half completed. Then, all activity stopped for about a week.
Diary entry for May 9: "Checked both boxes and found that the second box also has six eggs." I continued monitoring both boxes and noticed that the first box did not have any activity.
Diary entry for May 20: "Checked the second box and found that two of the eggs had hatched." Six days later all of the eggs had hatched; however, none of the eggs in the first house had hatched.
Chickadees belong to the Paridae family, more commonly called the titmouse family. The word Paridae comes from the Latin word parus, meaning a "titmouse." "Titmouse" comes from the old Icelandic word titr, meaning something small, and "mouse" is a corruption of "mase," an Anglo-Saxon word for a kind of bird.
The black-capped chickadee's scientific name is Parus atricapillus. The species name comes from two Latin words: atri, meaning "black," and capillus, meaning "hair, or crown." The common name chickadee comes from its familiar call, chicka-dee-dee.
Chickadees are cavity nesters, and my bird book states that the female builds the nest, which is made of plant fibers, hairs, mosses and feathers. As I watched the pair going back and forth to the box, it certainly appeared that both male and female were building the nest.
Black-capped chickadees are bold around humans and often can be trained to take food out of a hand. Years ago, while standing near the bird feeder, I had a chickadee land on my outstretched hand, with palm up and holding seeds. Although it is hard for me to be still that long, it was quite a thrill to feel the little bird pick a seed off my hand.
Chickadees will flock together during the fall and winter months. In the spring, they form breeding pairs and select a nest site, usually in a rotten tree, where they either excavate their own nest or use a hole made by woodpeckers. If natural cavities are not available, they do use nesting boxes.
Chickadees are easily driven away from a nest site by other birds, such as house wrens. If the birds are disturbed during nest building, they can abandon the nest; however, once the egg laying begins, monitoring the nest will be tolerated, especially those nesting in backyards where there is a lot of human activity. The best way to monitor a nest is to watch the female leave the nest and then check the progress of the egg laying. After the young are about 10 days old, it is a good idea to stop checking the nest because it could cause the young to fledge, or leave the nest, early.
My bird book tells me that chickadees generally nest in northern Pennsylvania in late May and June. Were the first eggs laid too early because of the unusual warm spring? At the time, I heard a wren singing every day and have wondered if the female had been chased from the nest by a house wren. But then, perhaps she was killed by one of the many neighborhood cats.
Here is the rest of the story: On June 1, I checked the eggs in the first box and found they were gone.
Then, on June 3, I found the chickadee's nest torn apart and scattered on the ground and, when opening the box, I found that a wren had begun to build a nest inside.
This life-and-death drama that unfolded in my backyard made me realize the struggles that even the songbirds go through to ensure their species lives on.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.