Massachusetts State Bird – Chickadee – Parus atricapillus

Black-capped Chickadee

State Bird of Massachusetts

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.

VOLUME II.

BLACK-CAP TITMOUSE.
[Black-capped Chickadee.]

PARUS ATRICAPILLUS, Linn.
[Parus atricapillus.]

PLATE CXXVI.–MALE AND FEMALE.

The opinion generally entertained respecting the extensive dispersionof the Black-cap Titmouse, has in all probability originated from the greatresemblance which it bears to the Carolina Titmouse, Parus Carolinensis,that species being now known to extend its spring and summer migrationsas far eastward as the State of New Jersey, where it has been found breedingby my friend EDWARD HARRIS, Esq. of Moorestown. The Black-cap, on the otherhand, is rarely observed farther south, and then only in winter, when itproceeds as far as beyond the middle portions of Maryland, from whenceI have at that season received specimens in spirits, collected by my friendColonel THEODORE ANDERSON of Baltimore. Westward of the Alleghanies itextends as far as Kentucky in winter, but at the approach of spring returnsnorthward. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey some are known to breed; butas the Carolina Titmouse breeds there also, it is difficult to say whichof them is the most numerous, they being so like each other that one isapt to confound them. In the State of New York it is abundant, and oftenrears two broods in the season; as you proceed eastward you may observeit in all places favourable to its habits; and, according to Dr. RICHARDSON,it is found as far north as lat. 65, it being in the Fur Countries themost common bird, "a small family inhabiting almost every thicket."None were seen by Mr. TOWNSEND either on the Rocky Mountains or about theColumbia river, where, on the contrary, Parus Carolinensis is abundant,as it is also in the Texas, where I found it breeding in the spring of1837. Although bearing a considerable resemblance to the Marsh Titmouseof Europe, P. palustris, it differs from that species not only in colour,but more especially in its habits and notes.

Hardy, smart, restless, industrious, and frugal, the Black-cap Titmouseranges through the forest during the summer, and retiring to its more secludedparts, as if to ensure a greater degree of quiet, it usually breeds there.Numerous eggs produce a numerous progeny, and as soon as the first broodhas been reared, the young range hither and thither in a body, searchingfor food, while their parents, intent on forming another family, remainconcealed and almost silent, laying their eggs in the hole deserted bysome small Woodpecker, or forming one for themselves. As it has been myfortune to witness a pair at this work, I will here state what occurred,notwithstanding the opinion of those who inform us that the bill of a Titmouseis "not shaped for digging." While seated one morning under acrab-apple tree (very hard wood, reader), I saw two Black-cap Titmice flutteringabout in great concern, as if anxious to see me depart. By their mannersindeed I was induced to believe that their nest was near, and, anxiousto observe their proceedings, I removed to the distance of about twentypaces. The birds now became silent, alighted on the apple-tree, graduallymoved towards the base of one of its large branches, and one of them disappearedin what I then supposed to be the hole of some small Woodpecker; but Isaw it presently on the edge, with a small chip in its bill, and againcautiously approached the tree. When three or four yards off I distinctlyheard the peckings or taps of the industrious worker within, and saw itcome to the mouth of the hole and return many times in succession in thecourse of half an hour, after which I got up and examined the mansion.The hole was about three inches deep, and dug obliquely downward from theaperture, which was just large enough to admit the bird. I had observedboth sexes at this labour, and left the spot perfectly satisfied as totheir power of boring a nest for themselves.

The Black-cap Titmouse, or Chickadee, as it is generally named in ourEastern States, though exceedingly shy in summer or during the breedingseason, becomes quite familiar in winter, although it never ventures toenter the habitations of man; but in the most boisterous weather, requiringneither food nor shelter there, it may be seen amidst the snow in the ruggedpaths of the cheerless woods, where it welcomes the traveller or the woodcutterwith a confidence and cheerfulness far surpassing the well-known familiarityof the Robin Redbreast of Europe. Often, on such occasions, should youoffer it, no matter how small a portion of your fare, it alights withouthesitation, and devours it without manifesting any apprehension. The soundof an axe in the woods is sufficient to bring forth several of these busycreatures, and having discovered the woodman, they seem to find pleasurein his company. If, as is usually the case, he is provided with a dinner,the Chickadee at once evinces its anxiety to partake of it, and loses noopportunity of accomplishing its object, although it sets about it withmuch circumspection, as if it were afraid of being detected, and broughtto punishment. A woodcutter in Maine assured me, that one day he happenedto be at work, and had scarcely hung up his basket of provisions, whenit was observed by a flock of these birds, which, having gathered intoit at once, attacked a piece of cold beef; but after each peck, he sawtheir heads raised above the edge, as if to guard against the least appearanceof danger. After picking until they were tired or satisfied, they leftthe basket and perched directly over his fire, but out of the directionof the smoke. There they sat enjoying themselves and ruffling their feathersto allow the warmth more easy access to their skin, until he began hisdinner, when they immediately alighted near him, and in the most plaintivetones seemed to solicit a portion.

WILSON and others have spoken of this species as being addicted to movingin the company of our smaller Woodpeckers and Brown Creepers, and thisin such a way as to induce most readers to believe the act to be customary;but I have often found groups of them, at times composed of more than adozen, without any such companions, and I should be more inclined to thinkthat the Downy Woodpecker, and the Brown Creeper, seek the company of theTitmice, rather than that the latter associate with them. Often indeedhave I watched the busy Chickadees, as they proceeded from tree to tree,and from branch to branch, whether by the road-side or in the interiorof the forest, when no other birds were with them. The light rustling soundof their concave wings would intimate their approach as well as their retreat,as gaily one after another they passed onwards from one spot to another,chattering, peeping everywhere, and determined as it were, not to suffera chink to pass without inspection. Now hanging, back downward, at theextremity of a twig, its feet almost up to its bill, it would peck at aberry or a seed until it had devoured it, or it had fallen to the ground:should the latter be the case, the busy bird would at once fly down, andhammer at the fruit. To the Black-cap Titmouse the breaking of a hazel-nutis quite a pleasure, and I have repeatedly seen the feat accomplished notonly by a bird in its natural state, but by one kept in confinement. Courageousand at times exceedingly tyrannical, it will attack young birds, breaktheir skulls, and feed upon their flesh, as I have more than once witnessed.In this habit they resemble the Jays, but in every other they differ entirelyfrom those birds although the PRINCE of MUSIGNANO has thought fit to assimilatethe two groups. The Chickadee feeds on insects, their larvae, and eggs,as well as on every sort of small fruit, or berries, including grapes,acorns, and the seeds of various pines. I have seen them eat the seedsof the sunflower, the pokeberry, and pears, as well as flesh of all kinds.Indeed it may be truly called omnivorous. Often, like Jays, you may seethem perched as it were upon their food, and holding it beneath their feetwhile pecking at it; but no Jays are seen to hang head downwards at theend of a branch.

My friend THOMAS M`CULLOCH, Esq. of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, has favouredme with the following interesting remarks having reference to this species."Sometimes I have been inclined to think, that the sight of this birdis comparatively imperfect, and that it is chiefly indebted to some ofthe other senses for its success in obtaining subsistence. This idea maynot be correct, but it seems to derive some support from the little incidentwhich I am about to mention. While standing at the edge of a patch of newly-felledwood, over which the fire had recently passed, and left every thing blackin its course, I observed a small flock of these birds coming from theopposite side of the clearing. Being dressed in black and aware of theirfamiliarity, I stood perfectly motionless, for the purpose of ascertaininghow near they would approach. Stealing from branch to branch, and peeringfor food among the crevices of the prostrate trunks, as they passed along,onward they came until the foremost settled upon a small twig a few feetfrom the spot upon which I stood. After looking about for a short timeit flew and alighted just below the lock of a double-barrelled gun whichI held in a slanting direction below my arm. Being unable however to obtaina hold, it slided down to the middle of the piece, and then flew away,jerking its tail, and apparently quite unconscious of having been so nearthe deadly weapon. In this country these birds seem to be influenced bya modification of that feeling by which so many others are induced to congregateat the close of autumn and seek a more congenial clime. At that periodthey collect in large flocks and exhibit all the hurry and bustle of travellers,who are bent upon a distant journey. If these flocks do not migrate, theirunion is soon destroyed, for when the Black-cap Titmice again appear, itis in small flocks; their former restlessness is gone, and they now exhibittheir wonted care and deliberation in searching for food."

The nest of this species, whether it be placed in the hole of a Woodpeckeror squirrel, or in a place dug by itself, is seldom found at a height exceedingten feet. Most of those which I have seen were in low broken or hollowedstumps only a few feet high. The materials of which it is composed varyin different districts, but are generally the hair of quadrupeds, in aconsiderable quantity, and disposed in the shape of a loose bag or purse,as in most other species which do not hang their nests outside. Some personshave said that they lay their eggs on the bare wood, or on the chips leftby Woodpeckers; but this is not the case, in so far as I have examinedthem; and in this my observations are confirmed by those of Dr. BREWERof Boston and Mr. M`CULLOCH of Halifax, who also have inspected nests ofthis species. The eggs rarely exceed eight in number they measure five-eighthsof an inch in length, by three-eighths and three-quarters, are rather pointedat the smaller end, white, slightly sprinkled with minute dots and markingsof little reddish. Those of the first brood are deposited from the middleof April to that of May; for the second about two months later. The parentsI have thought generally move along with the young of the second brood.

Dr. BREWER says, "on the 20th of June, I found in a single Titmouse’shole a mass of the hair of the common skunk and moss large enough to weightwo or more ounces, and sufficient to construct a nest for some of ourlarger birds, such for instance as Wilson’s Thrush."

Mr. M`CULLOCH found a nest of this bird placed about two feet from theground in a small stump, which seemed to have been excavated by the birdsthemselves. It contained six young, and was lined entirely with the hairwhich cattle, in rubbing themselves, had left upon the stump.

The flight of this species, like that of all our American Titmice, isshort, fluttering, generally only from tree to tree, and is accompaniedwith a murmuring sound produced by the concavity of the wings. It is seldomseen on the ground, unless when it has followed a fruit that has fallen,or when searching for materials for its nest. It usually roosts in itsnest during winter, and in summer amid the close foliage of firs or evergreens.In winter, indeed, as well as often in autumn, it is seen near the farm-houses,and even in villages and towns, busily seeking for food among the trees.

"On seeing a cat, or other object of natural antipathy," saysMr. NUTTALL, "the Chickadee, like the peevish Jay, scolds in a loud,angry, and hoarse note, ‘tshe, daigh daigh daigh. Among the other notesof this species, I have heard a call like tshe-de-jay, tshe-de-jay, thetwo first syllables being a slender chirp, with the jay strongly pronounced.The only note of this bird which may be called a song, is one which isfrequently heard at intervals in the depths of the forest, at times ofday usually when all other birds are silent. We then may sometimes hearin the midst of this solitude two feeble, drawling, clearly whistled, andrather melancholy notes like ‘te-derry, and sometimes ye-perrit, and occasionally,but more rarely in the same wiry, whistling, solemn tone, ‘phebe. The youngin winter also sometimes drawl out these contemplative strains. In allcases the first syllable is very high and clear, the second word dropslow, and ends like a feeble plaint. This is nearly all the quaint songever attempted by the Chickadee. On fine days, about the commencement ofOctober, I have heard the Chickadee sometimes, for half an hour at a time,attempt a lively, petulant warble, very different from his ordinary notes.On these occasions he appears to flirt about, still hunting for his prey,in an ecstasy of delight and vigour. But after awhile the usual drawlingnote again occurs. These birds, like many others, are very subject to theattacks of vermin, and they accumulate in great numbers around that partof the head and front which is least accessible to their foot."

BLACK-CAPT TITMOUSE, Parus atricapillus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol.i. p. 134.
PARUS ATRICAPILLUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 100.
BLACK-CAPT TITMOUSE, Nutt. Man., p. 241.

BLACK-CAPT TITMOUSE, Parus atricapillus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol.iv. p. 374.

Adult Male.

Bill short, straight, strong, compressed, rather obtuse; both mandibleswith the dorsal line slightly convex, the sides sloping and convex, theedges sharp, that of the upper mandible slightly sinuate. Nostrils basal,roundish, concealed by the recumbent feathers. Head large, neck short,body robust. Feet of ordinary length, rather robust; tarsus compressed,with seven anterior scutella; toes large, the three anterior united asfar as the second joint; the hind one much stronger, and with its clawnearly as long as the middle toe. Claws large, arched, much compressed,acute.

Plumage blended, tufty; feathers of the head glossy. Wings of moderatelength, the first quill scarcely half the length of the second, which isequal to the first secondary, the third and seventh about equal, the fourthand fifth equal and longest. Tail long, a little arched, emarginate androunded, of twelve slender rounded feathers.

Bill brownish-black. Iris dark brown. Feet greyish-blue, as are theclaws. The whole upper part of the head and the hind neck pure black, asis a large patch on the throat and fore-neck. Between these patches ofblack is a band of white, from the base of the bill down the sides of theneck, becoming broader behind, and encroaching on the back, which, withthe wing-coverts, is ash-grey tinged with brown. Quills dark greyish-brown,margined with bluish-white, the secondary quills so broadly margined asto leave a conspicuous white dash on the wing; tail of the same colour,the feathers similarly edged. Lower parts brownish-white, the sides paleyellowish-brown.

Length to end of tail 5 1/8 inches, to end of wings 3 7/8, to end ofclaws 4 1/2; extent of wing 8 1/4; wing from flexure 2 10/12; tail 2 9/12;these measurements taken from three males. In another, the bill along theridge (4 1/2)/12, along the edge of lower mandible 7/12; tarsus 7/12; hindtoe 3/12, its claw 4/12; middle toe 5/12, its claw 3/12.

Adult Female.

The Female is similar to the male.

Male examined. The tongue is 4 1/2 twelfths long, emarginate and papillateat the base, flat above, depressed, tapering, the point horny, slit, withfour bristly points. OEsophagus, [b, c, d], 1 1/2 inches long, taperingat the commencement to the diameter of 2 twelfths, and then continuingnearly uniform, without dilatation; the proventriculus, [c, d], is notmuch enlarged. The stomach, [d, e], is a strong gizzard, of an oblong formor ovate, 4 twelfths long, 3 twelfths broad, with strong lateral muscles;its epithelium longitudinally rugous, and of a dark reddish-brown colour.Intestine 7 1/4 inches long, the diameter of its duodenal portion, [f,g, h], 2 1/2 twelfths. The rectum, [g, k], is 7 1/2 twelfths long; thecoeca, [j], 1 twelfth long, and 1/4 twelfth in diameter.

The trachea is 1 2/12 inches long, its diameter uniform, 3/4 twelfths,its rings 42. It is furnished with lateral or contractor muscles, sterno-tracheal,and four pairs of inferior laryngeal. Bronchi short, of about 10 rings.

The Chickadee is also the Maine State Bird.

Portions copyright © Richard R. Buonanno, 1995
Web version of John James Audubon’s work. “The Birds of America”
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