Among the regular winter visitors to my front-yard bird feeders are two boreal chickadees, likely a mated pair. When they show up—which in single-digit temperatures might be several times a day—they inevitably go right to my hanging peanut butter feeder.
Why boreals favor peanut butter while their close relatives and frequent companions, black-capped chickadees, prefer black-oil sunflower seeds, is a mystery to me. When they’re not drawn into the feeders that we humans place in our yards, boreals and black caps have largely the same diet, subsisting mostly on insects and seeds. So why do boreals show such an attraction to peanut butter and black caps to sunflower seeds at feeders?
I’ve done some searching around, but so far haven’t found any explanation for the difference; in fact I haven’t yet found anything that discusses boreal chickadees’ apparent wintertime passion for peanut butter. Does anyone out there have a theory or insight you’d like to share?
I probably should add here that in my experience (i.e., a quarter century of feeding Anchorage-area birds in winter, first on the Hillside and for the past 13 years in the Turnagain area), red-breasted nuthatches, too, are drawn to peanut butter. Which reminds me (an aside to my aside): though I’ve tried various suet combinations over the years, peanut butter seems to be at the apex of the boreal chickadee and red-breasted nuthatch list of preferred winter foods. I finally stopped putting out suet and have stayed with peanut butter and those two species seem plenty satisfied. Another possible area for research?
I wonder what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch experts would say about all of this. I suppose one of these days I should make a more concerted effort to find out.
Before returning my focus to boreal chickadees, here’s another more general observation, which any local birdwatcher can confirm: in Southcentral Alaska (and presumably other areas where their ranges overlap) boreals, black caps, and nuthatches are often found in close company. In fact they’re so companionable that I sometimes think of the three species as the three amigos.
This association is especially true in northern woodlands with abundant white spruce, because boreals—which are mostly found in forested parts of Canada and Alaska—prefer conifer forests. Even ornithologists agree on this point. Black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches aren’t quite so picky and can be found in mixed forests of conifers and deciduous trees. Black caps seem to be the greatest generalists, found in many types of forest habitat, which I suppose helps to explain their greater abundance.
That’s something else to know about boreals: they’re common, but not plentiful.
So, here’s another question for the birding experts out there: why do boreals prefer conifers?
This is one of the great things about being a newspaper essayist/columnist; I get to ask the questions and let the experts take over. Though if I don’t get any responses, I promise to do some further digging.
In the meantime . . . I recognize that not everyone reading this column is familiar with boreal chickadees, or necessarily even knows they exist. For much of my life I didn’t know there was such an animal. In fact it wasn’t until I’d reached my mid-40s that I “discovered” boreals. This came during one of my great midlife awakenings, the sudden awareness and appreciation of the many birds with which we share the northern landscape.
(On the scale of my lifespan, which has now reached nearly seven decades, it really was a “sudden” change, my life altered in the span of a few hours by black-capped chickadees, and then my world dramatically expanded within the space of several weeks, as I discovered, and became fascinated by, many other local woodland songbirds. I have written about this transformation elsewhere, including an earlier City Wilds column and will likely recount that story again sometime in the future.)
Before that awakening, I could recognize black-capped chickadees, magpies, ravens, and bald eagles, but I had no idea so many small to medium-sized songbirds inhabited the Anchorage area in winter.
I don’t remember exactly when boreal chickadees flew into my life, though I’m sure it’s recorded in one of my many journals. But I’d guess it was in either 1994 or 1995. And I do recall the circumstances. I was doing a winter walk in Chugach State Park’s Glen Alps area, hiking past some of the dense stands of hemlocks that are so abundant in that locale, when I heard a chickadee call. Except this call seemed different somehow. It was . . . more nasally than what I associate with black caps. At least that’s the way I’ve come to think of boreal calls; I’m not exactly sure how I described it then.
I stopped, listened more closely, and looked around me. And I noticed some small songbirds moving, in a hopping sort of way, among some of those hemlocks. Lifting binoculars to eyes, I looked into the trees. And there before me were some tiny creatures I’d never before seen. Or at least noticed. Right away, they became one of my favorite critters (it seems I’ve always had a soft spot for chickadees).
So, for those who are wondering, here’s how you can tell boreals from black caps. First, their voices. As already mentioned, boreals have a distinctly more nasally tone—at least to my ears. And sometimes they make a strange kind of sound, like what you make when you “flutter” your lips, or do what in some quarters is called “blowing a raspberry.” So far I haven’t found that boreal call described anywhere, either.
As for looks: from a distance, boreal chickadees don’t appear much different than black caps, at least to the untrained eye. But if you look closely through binoculars, or if you lure one into your peanut butter feeder and see the bird up close, you’ll notice that boreals have a brown cap, not a black one, and their backs too are brownish, and much of their undersides is chestnut colored. Get a boreal and black cap to sit side by side and the difference between them is obvious. Of course getting any chickadee to sit still for long is all but impossible—unless you put out some peanut butter. Then a boreal might stop for long enough for you to admire its subtle woodland beauty.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.