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Chickadee Nesting Behavior

Dear Bird Folks,

There is a chickadee, presumably a male, that has been tapping at the inside wall of the wren birdhouse in my yard. I opened the box and found no nest at all, but noticed that Mr. Chickadee had done damage to the back wall of the birdhouse. As soon as I closed it up he went right back to work. Is he remodeling the house to put on the market or is he simply tapping out “bachelor available” in Morse Code?

– Gene, W. Dennis


Let Me Guess Gene,

When you were in elementary school, you were the captain of the “Imagination Team”? When you look at clouds do they sometimes look like cows riding exercise bikes or have you ever seen the faces of religious figures in a pot of boiling pudding? Me too. Although I have to admit that even I never thought of birds sending out messages in Morse Code. It’s so obvious now. You’re good.

Chickadees are the best birds ever. If any bird could master Morse Code or be shrewd enough to remodel a house for “spec,” a chickadee could. And believe it or not, the spec idea isn’t as far out as everyone, except you, might think. The bird you heard was indeed remodeling your birdhouse, but not to sell on the open market. He was trying to sell it to his mate. Also, he may have been a she. It’s oh so complicated.

Part of the success chickadees have had as a species is due to their flexibility. Chickadees will nest in birdhouses, just like a bluebird does. But if a chickadee can’t find a birdhouse, it will simply dig out its own “birdhouse” in the side of a rotted tree. That’s a skill pretty boy bluebird doesn’t have. In fact, chickadees, being the over achievers that they are, would much rather dig out their own nest site and leave the prefab birdhouses for those fat, lazy bluebirds.

I know that you assumed it was the male bird tapping in your nest box, but chickadees aren’t about to let our sexist stereotypes dictate their nesting behaviors. It could have been either the male or the female that was working away in your box. Within their territory a pair of chickadees will often choose as many as five different nest sites. Each bird may pick out a site or two, work on it independently and then show it off to its mate. After much displaying, negotiation and the occasional use of a Ouija board, the pair comes to an agreement on a final nesting spot.

Since house hunting chickadees are usually already paired up, the tapping that you heard was not Morse Code or even a noise used to attract a mate. As I have already mentioned, a chickadees first choice is to dig out its own nest cavity. The bird that you heard tapping in your birdhouse was simply fulfilling its need to excavate. Even though your birdhouse was in move-in condition, the bird still needed to feel like it had something to do with the construction. You mentioned that the box was for wrens. Wren houses are small. Perhaps adding a home office or breakfast nook was all the chickadee needed to do to convince its mate that this should be their dream house. And everyone knows that chickadees are suckers for a freshly installed breakfast nook.

I got a kick out of your note Gene because I too have had a chickadee tapping at the inside of a nest box in my yard. At first when I opened the box it was empty, much like yours, but a few day later I found that a standard-issue chickadee nest was up and running. I’m always impressed how quickly these little birds can build those cozy nests, with only their tiny beaks to carry material with.

If you see a Black-capped Chickadee carrying nesting material, it will be the female. Even chickadees have to draw the equal-division-of-labor line at some point. If she is going to be sitting on the same spot for several weeks in a row she wants to be the one to pick out the material that she’s going to be sitting on. Mrs. Chickadee doesn’t want to come home to a nest that is made up of old tires and cigar butts. The typical chickadee nest is a cup of soft moss or pine needles that is lined with an even softer material like rabbit fur, plant down or a roll of Charmin.

I hope the chickadees nest in your birdhouse Gene. If they don’t, you may want to drop the rent a bit. Either that or add a breakfast nook. If none of those suggestions work you could simply “imagine” that the birds or perhaps cloud-cows are nesting in your nest box.