Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches
Nature Bulletin No. 179-A   February 13, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation


Of the songbirds which remain in the northern portions of the central and eastern states all winter, there are three very closely related yet entirely different in appearance the chickadee, the titmouse and the nuthatch. Elsewhere the species may be different, but in the Chicago area we have the Black-capped Chickadee, the Tufted Titmouse, and the White-breasted Nuthatch. The red-breasted nuthatch is an irregular migrant from far north.

People who roam the woodlands in wintertime, and particularly those who live near a wooded area and maintain a bird-feeding board at home -- whether in the country, in the suburbs, or near a park or a cemetery in the city -- soon come to know these three. They are primarily insect eaters, valuable because they search for and consume great quantities of the eggs, larvae, pupae and adults of insects harmful to shade trees, orchards and forest trees. Therefore, they are particularly fond of sunflower and other fatty seeds, suet, and a doughball mixture of cornmeal, oatmeal, a little white flour and melted fat. These three and the cardinal, the bluejay, the downy woodpecker, and the junco comprise our most common native songbirds in winter.

Smallest of the three and most trustful -- first to investigate a feeding board -- is the round fluffy little chickadee: very saucy, very spruce in its livery of black, gray and white. Smaller than a sparrow, it is the only bird with a black cap and a black bib under its chin. It has a very short bill and its eye, surrounded by the edge of the black cap, is almost invisible. It is the most vividly cheerful and active citizen of the winter woods, blithely hustling about in snowstorms and bitter cold, occasionally calling a cheery "Chicka-dee-dee, day-day-day". It is quite an acrobat and as it flits thru the woods you may see it turn a somersault to alight on the underside of a branch which it proceeds to investigate, out to the twigs and buds, for insects. It also likes small berries, such as those of poison ivy.

The Tufted Titmouse, or tomtit, or sugar bird, is more wary and is apt to appear suddenly on your feeding board, seize a morsel and dart away. When it becomes tamer it will jab away at a chunk of suet or seize a seed between its feet and crack it with rapid hammer-strokes of its bill. The titmouse has a pointed crest, long slender tail, large dark eyes and a strong cone-shaped bill. Its upper plumage is mousy gray, tinged with olive on the back. The lower parts are whitish, washed with rusty color on the flanks.

Like the chickadee, it works along the upper branches and twigs of trees searching for insects, but it is not so fond of queer positions. Its song is a loud clear whistle: "Peter, peter, peter". Both of these birds, and the nuthatch, nest in old woodpecker holes, tree cavities, or cavities they excavate in punky wood, but the titmouse nearly always includes an old snakeskin in its nesting material, and a lot of hair. It has been seen plucking hairs from a squirrel's tail, and from the back of a woodchuck.

The nuthatch, or "upside-down-bird", is much different: more deliberate, and fond of creeping jerkily up and down the trunks and larger branches of trees, usually head downward, silently probing for insects. Occasionally it will utter a nasal "Yank, yank". Bluish-gray above, it has a black cap, beady black eyes set in white cheeks, but no black bib below its chin. It has a stubby tail and a long bill, perkily pointed slightly upward. Unlike the chickadee and titmouse it will place a seed in a crevice of bark and then hammer at it. They also store food in such cracks. No other tree climber habitually goes down tree trunks headfirst.

Take a winter walk and get acquainted with our feathered friends.

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