Colour-coding chickadees

Edit: This post was recently included in the 69th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Living the Scientific Life.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Yesterday afternoon Blackburnian and I went out birding in a tract of woods near Paris, Ontario. It wasn’t a large patch, but was still perhaps 8 or 10 acres, and we spent some time wandering through it. There was very little activity in most of it, which is typical of woodlands in the winter. Although in spring and early summer the woods can be alive with birdsong, once the migrants depart in the fall there are very few birds left that favour that sort of habitat. Woodpeckers, chickadees in small flocks, perhaps the odd tree sparrow or junco in the scrubby bits if you’re lucky. But pretty quiet.

Northern Cardinal

The best places to see birds in the winter is near a feeder, which is part of the reason I don’t do a lot of birding in the wintertime – when all the birds are coming to you, where you can view them from the comfort of your home, why go out into the cold to wander around an empty woodland? Of course, there’s lots else to see in the woods, but I usually reserve those outings for warmer days with lovely weather. The place we were at yesterday had a section of boardwalk where a few feeders had been set up, and kept regularly stocked. Although they were visited predominantly by Black-capped Chickadees, there were also Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals and both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches visiting them.

Feeding the chickadees

Like at a lot of parks with bird-feeding trails, the chickadees and nuthatches had learned to come to people’s outstretched hands to pick up seed. This is an absolute delight for small children, and even for adults there’s some magic in a wild creature coming to your hand with enough trust to take a bite of food. Although we hadn’t thought to bring any seed with us, we borrowed a few seeds from one of the feeders and offered them to the chickadees. And the chickadees were quite happy to take them.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Just nearby is Wrigley Corners Outdoor Education Centre. As part of their education and research programs, they have been banding the chickadees that come to the feeders here in the park. They use a combination of bands, both silver aluminum and coloured plastic ones, to create a unique colour combination that can be easily visually identified at a distance. This allows you to follow individual birds to learn more about their behaviour patterns and movements. No two birds in a study are ever given the same band combination, unless it’s known the previous owner of a combination is deceased. Band colours are read from top to bottom, with the bird’s left leg first, then the right. So the bird at the top of this post would be Red-Orange:Silver-Green. The above bird would be Silver-Pink:Blue-Blue.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Here Silver-Red:Yellow-Yellow surveys the proffered seeds before coming down. The bands circle the bird’s leg much the way you or I would wear a watch, or a bracelet; they aren’t attached to the bird’s body, and they cause it no discomfort or inconvenience. Although it takes the bird a few minutes to get used to this new addition, it quickly moves on with foraging for food, or whatever else is on its daily agenda, and isn’t bothered by it again.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

And, as you can tell by these birds still coming to peoples’ hands, the process of having the band put on hasn’t caused them any real distress. Most birds are banded and measured, and then safely released within a minute or two. In addition to the coloured bands, the silver band has a 9-digit number that also uniquely identifies the bird in a national database, should it ever decide to wander and someone else encounters it. This number is also useful for identifying birds without colour bands if they’re captured again (it’s too small to read from afar on most birds), and particularly for migrant birds that may turn up somewhere else on the continent.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Colour bands are most often used on studies of birds on territory; that is, birds that aren’t moving around a lot. By banding the breeding birds of a particular species in a forest plot, say, you can track how many individuals there are, who owns what territory, what males are mating with what females, how far birds are foraging from their nests, and other interesting and valuable information. The data collected from such projects is used in making decisions about conservation practices to protect the birds and the habitats they live in. Similar studies take place with birds on their wintering grounds. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time with them yesterday, we were still able to make some observations, such with as the above bird, Red-Orange:Silver-Green. In the above photo, s/he (both sexes look the same) was about 20 metres down the trail from where the first photo of the post was taken. Ordinarily I would probably have thought they were a completely different set of birds, but obviously they were moving around the area – seeing if other peoples’ offerings were any better, I guess!

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12 responses to “Colour-coding chickadees

  1. I haven’t had a chickadee on my hand in years.
    We used to feed the black-capped in western NY, but now, in SW Ohio, i have Carolina chickadees, instead. I wonder if they’re as easily tamed. (?)

  2. themarvelousinnature

    I would think so. It’s been my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience that chickadees of all species bear that bold, curious personality that makes them such great candidates for hand-feeding. The one thing it requires is a lot of patience and persistence. I tried training the chickadees at my parents’ a number of years ago. You have to start by removing all your other feeders while you stand there, often for 20 or 30 minutes or more at a time, in the place where the feeders used to be while holding a bunch of seed in your hand. They’ll eventually become bold enough to come to your hand. It helps if you can rest your hand on something! You could also start by acclimating the chickadees to your presence by simply standing by the feeders, before you remove them and present the birds with your hand. Resting your arm on something while waiting is also a good idea. :) Good luck if you decide to give it a try!

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  4. Your posts are always so well written and informative. The pictures are great too. I am learning a lot from reading your work.
    Beth

  5. This article hurts! Badly! We haven’t had Black-Capped Chickadees in my small village since January, 1996. The white-out killed untold numbers of Sandhill Cranes sheltering in the Platte River (4 Mi. South) . We miss the Chickadees desperately. Marty Mathieson

  6. themarvelousinnature

    Thanks, Beth!

    And I’m sorry to hear that, Marty… They are real characters to have around. We have lots out here, I’ll give some a whisper and tell them to head out your way! :)

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  8. I happened upon this post doing a friendliness of Chickadees search because yesterday I got a juvenile Carolina Chickadee to land on the back of my shoulder! It was only my third try. I had food, but it didn’t take any from hand. It stayed there for probably a good 2 minutes.

  9. Dear Marvelous,

    I have worked volunteering and co-oping in my spare time at Wrigley Corners for over 10 years and have conducted the banding down at Dickson Wilderness Area for the same time period. A good friend of mine who was also doing the same, working and volunteering when he could at Wrigley’s is now running the Outdoor Education Centre.

    So, my little post here has to do with how you read the chickadee’s bands. We actually band them so that you read the bird’s right leg first (so to a human looking face to face with a bird it would the human equivalent to the left direction), and then the bird’s left leg. So in your first photo with the bird you label as silver-pink blue-blue is actually blue-blue metal-pink.

    We actually have names for each combination you see down there and have been researching the flock dynamics and chickadee behaviour for over 20yrs in that area. So there have been many chickadee’s of the same name just different generations. When a particular bird has not been seen for some years, we reband a chickadee with that combination. We give the kid’s who come out to the centre, a sheet with the names and groups of birds. Different flocks are the different double colours: pink, blue, yellow etc. and each flock is caught in a certain area at Dickson so we know which flocks are coming together in winter, who is mating who, who is dominant or not as the case may be etc. Then we enter all the data taken into the computer and analyze it. Voila papers galore.

    I hope that you keep enjoying it there, it is an awesome place to go, especially when the chickadee’s are hungry. :) Keep on birding!

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  11. I saw my first banded Chickadee today, and I wasn’t impressed. The bird was timid (I’ll bet!), would not come to hand, was skittish with food placed out of my reach that other birds were coming to, and had NO pecking order. It had to eat what the squirrel left.

    I look at those bands and think you have never had anything attached to your leg, or you wouldn’t be so soignee about a weight like that attached to you, with it also being something that would hold the cold in minus 30, and something that would cause other Chickadees to be suspicious of you, and something that could get caught on something.

    It seemed cruel and unnecessary, like something done to teach biology students how to be top of the food chain.

    • I doubt the behaviour of your chickadee was directly influenced by the banding process, Tweet. Skittish is the normal state of being for a bird – the chickadees that will come and land on your hand for seeds have been acclimitized to humans over a long period. None of the chickadees at my feeders will tolerate my presence, but that’s just because I don’t spend any time out there teaching them that I’m no threat. Likely your chickadee was a young bird, or possibly a migrant (yes, chickadees do migrate especially when seed crops are poor) and not used to human presence. I’ve never known a chickadee, or any bird for that matter, to stand up to a squirrel, either.

      There has been quite a bit of research as to the effects that wearing a band has on a bird, and the general consensus is that there’s little to none. The band is made out of lightweight aluminum and weighs about as much to the bird as wearing a metal watch does to you. If you try to weigh one, you would need a special precision laboratory scale, as it doesn’t register on normal sorts. Eventually you forget your watch is even there. So does the bird.

      There is no evidence to suggest that the bands affect the bird’s appeal to other members of the species. Banding is used as a regular practice during studies that track individuals during the breeding season to record nesting success, partnerships from year to year, etc. Banded birds mate just as often and produce just as many young as unbanded birds.

      A bird has counter-current circulation in its legs, which is why it can stand in cold water or in the snow without its toes dropping off, and a metal band would have no effect on the bird’s temperature, or at least no more than the snow.

      Bands are carefully fitted to be just loose enough to not impede the bird’s circulation or movement, but not so loose that they might get caught on something. I have never heard of a bird getting caught on anything by its band, and if it were a big problem, with the hundreds of thousands of birds banded every year you’d expect to hear about it frequently.

      Bands are an extremely useful tool for field research – we learn so much through our ability to identify individuals that we wouldn’t otherwise know if all we could tell was that it was “a chickadee, dunno who”. This knowledge is invaluable in conservation efforts, as we must know the biology of the bird before we can know how or why our actions might affect the bird, and therefore how we can better conserve it.

      I’m sorry that your first encounter with a banded bird left you with such a negative impression.

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