Chickadee Longevity and Mortality


It is always fun to watch the chickadees at our bird feeders.  But while watching their entertaining antics the other day, I got curious about how long these amped-up feather-balls live, and what were their major mortality factors.  So I went to my standard source for chickadee information, The Black-capped Chickadee:  behavioral ecology and natural history by Susan M. Smith (1991).

Smith notes that at least one chickadee lived to the ripe old age of 13.  But as you might expect, that is not the norm.  Most chickadees probably live around two and a half years.  But that estimate, of course, would not include destroyed eggs.  It would also not include mortality factors on some nestlings and other very young birds.

I was surprised to learn that some of the more well documented causes of mortality among chickadees are human related.  That would include chickadees being killed by cats, flying into windows, and pesticide poisoning.

When it comes to natural predators, mammals such as raccoons, red squirrels, and perhaps chipmunks rank quite high.  Most of the predation on chickadees, however, is from avian predators such as hawks, owls, and shrikes.  The more common hawks preying on chickadees includes Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and kestrels, which many of you probably learned as sparrow hawks.

I was quite surprised to learn that house wrens are the most significant predators on chickadee eggs and nestlings.  Most of us that have been around house wrens know that they are quite territorial and feisty, so perhaps this should not be surprising.  House wrens may enter the nesting cavity of a chickadee and destroy the eggs or young, and may even kill an incubating adult.  One study found that house wrens destroyed the eggs in 20% of the chickadee nests.  Perhaps the intense competition for suitable nesting cavities is a contributing factor for these small birds.

So the next time you see a chickadee, give some thought to their longevity and the mortality factors facing these entertaining visitors to our bird feeders.  Then check to make sure there is plenty of seed in the feeder.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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