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At Home: Chickadees Nest In Large Maple Sugar Tree

A caterpillar on a maple leaf. Photo by Jeff Tome.

I’ve found entertainment in my yard in the past few weeks. I’ve been watching Black-capped Chickadees nesting in a dead tree. The tree they chose is a large Sugar Maple, whose top fell over in a storm seven years ago. The top has been cut and burned in the campfire or decomposing in the “messy” corner of the yard. But the wide trunk still stands strong — at least strong enough to still hold the clothesline. But soft enough for chickadees to excavate a small cavity to raise their young.

Watching this little bird family reminds me of my college apartment. There was a creek in the backyard. Most days, there was a Great Egret standing in the creek, still as a statue as it waited for a fish, frog, or other tasty meal to come into range of its long bill. We nicknamed this white, lanky bird “Television” — mostly as a joke. But I think we also recognized the expectation to justify our time and find our entertainment in “normal” ways. So when just needed some time outside, quietly doing a whole bunch of nothing near the creek we could say we were “watching television”.

But like television, nature holds drama too. I first noticed the chickadees in mid-April. Their calling back and forth caught my attention. Then I noticed the small, perfect circle of a hole in the tree. And they kept hanging around that spot. They were starting a nest inside this hole in the tree just big enough for the two adults and a handful of eggs.

After a quite few weeks, I glimpsed a chickadee perched on the clothesline with a fat, green caterpillar in their mouth. There must be baby birds! For the next week, I watched. I watched as I ate dinner outside, as I laid in my hammock, took breaks from gardening and sat behind the lens of my camera. I watched as caterpillar after caterpillar after caterpillar was brought to that cavity by one of the adults.

Each time, they wouldn’t come directly to the entrance. The adult would sit on the clothesline or branch nearby. They would make a soft “See-saw” call until the other adult came out. There was a quick exchange of a caterpillar and then they were off again.

One of "my" Black-capped Chickadees on one of the many trips to and from the nesting cavity with food for their growing nestlings. Photo by Katie Finch

I watched every morning as I let the dog out. If the dog was too frantic, the chickadee would fly away, not depositing the caterpillar with its mate. Presumably, the chickadee saw the dog as a predator and did not want to reveal the location of the nest.

As I waited to see the chickadee return, I wondered what would happen to that family if a predator — the neighbor’s outdoor cat the mostly likely — got one of the adult birds? How difficult the single parent life would be! As I crawled into bed in the comfort of my home, I wondered about the sleeping arrangements in that tree. I hoped they were warm on the unusually cold evenings we had.

My yard is nothing special. Just a quarter acre lot in a rural village. I work to make my yard a place for relaxation and for play. A place of beauty for me and those that pass by. But also as a home for the other creatures we share the world with.

There is a sense of pride that my yard — and the surrounding yards — can sustain this chickadee family. Most bird parents forage for food close to home because the energy cost of traveling far is too great when one has to feed rapidly growing young, and oneself. And most songbirds, chickadees included, feed their young protein- and fat-rich caterpillars, despite what they eat other times of the year.

In his book, Nature’s Best Hope, Douglas Tallamy describes a study by Richard Brewer, who counted the number of caterpillars that Carolina Chickadees (a close relative of our Black-capped Chickadee) brought to their nest. He found that parents brought 350 – 570 caterpillars a day to their nestlings. That means that over the typical nesting period of sixteen days, chickadees collect 6,000 – 9,000 caterpillars.

Black-capped Chickadees typically lay six to eight eggs in a nest. Photo by Terry LeBaron

I’m shocked that there are that many caterpillars and insects in my yard — and more! There must be more caterpillars to feed other bird’s nestlings and enough larva to continue on into adulthood to start the life cycle over.

And all this is because of the plants. They are the first step in the chain whose links are forged by who eats whom. Caterpillars eat the plants. Birds eat the caterpillars. Some plants support more life than others. For example, the Norway Maple supports many, many fewer caterpillars and insects then the oaks or the cherries. The Bee Balm is abuzz with tiny green bees while the Bearded Iris is fairly quiet. But I appreciate the much needed shade from the maple and delight in the blooms of the iris.

In working in and enjoying my little patch of land, I don’t want perfection to get in the way of good. My casual observations will never reach the point of Brewer’s intensity and scientific significance. I will keep plugging along as best I can to develop this space as a home for me and for others including the four and the six legged, and the winged kind. And regardless of what we are expected to do, I know that watching and supporting the natural world is the right thing to do — however much we can manage, in whatever way we can.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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