Have you ever had a chickadee land on you while walking in the woods? Well, you wouldn’t be alone!
Chickadees have gained a reputation among songbirds for being some of the most friendly creatures in the forest.
But have you ever wondered why?
Chickadees who have regular contact with humans in parks and on hiking trails become less fearful of our presence and sometimes even associate our approach with the opportunity for an easy food source.
In these situations, it’s very common for chickadees to approach humans quite closely and with a bit of coaxing, can even be fed by hand!
This can be an incredibly fun and heart-warming experience of connection with nature, but it also begs the question of why chickadees are such friendly little birds?
Sometimes people see this behavior and wonder if it’s stupid for a songbird to land on a much larger and potentially dangerous human.
Or is it perhaps a sign of intelligence that they’re somehow able to know we’re not going to hurt them? And if that’s true, then why do chickadees figure this out, but not other common songbirds like sparrows & robins?
I’ve spent a lot of time studying chickadee behavior over the years, and there are some fascinating things to note about their personality and lifestyle that can help to explain their special connection with humans.
So let’s take a wander into the exciting world of chickadees and explore why chickadees are such great friends with humans.
1. Urban Chickadees Lose Their Fear Of Novel Situations
An interesting study was published in 2019 showing that ‘black-capped chickadees in the city are less wary of new items that appear in their home range than forest-dwelling chickadees’.
This boldness of course extends to feeling less wary of human beings too.
However, the really important thing about this study is it shows that chickadee friendliness is actually a learned behavior rather than an inherent characteristic of the species.
It’s not simply that all chickadees are comfortable being close to humans.
We’re specifically talking about chickadees who have regular interaction with humans, such as those on hiking trails, or in city parks.
This is why you’ll notice if you go further into the wilderness where chickadees rarely have contact with humans, they really are much shyer.
It also helps us see that chickadees are not just blindly approaching humans without any appreciation for the risks… actually quite the opposite!
The fact that chickadees alter their response to humans in different situations is a clear sign that chickadees are quite intelligent and capable of adapting behavior to their environment.
They’re able to turn the risk of approaching a large and potentially dangerous animal (humans) into a great benefit of food and safety from hawks or other predators.
However, this still doesn’t explain why chickadees, in particular, are so much better at this than other common birds like robins, sparrows, & blue jays.
So what else is going on here with chickadees to make them so friendly?
For this, we have to look at what makes chickadees distinct from other songbirds that also occupy both urban and wilderness habitats.
Which brings us to our next important point…
2. Chickadees Are Very Social Birds
As far as songbirds go, chickadees are some of the most social both within their species and beyond.
They often flock together with other types of birds and have an incredibly complex range of vocalizations to communicate a whole variety of situations. (Learn more about how birds communicate).
Some of my earliest memories of being outside at my sit spot involve hearing chickadees making such a complex array of sounds that it’s hard to believe they all come from the same bird!
(To learn more about chickadee sounds, here are 7 common types of chickadee calls and what they tell you)
Chickadees are some of the most reliable inter-species alarm birds for aerial predators like hawks & owls, as well as ground predators like cats.
And while all birds will share information during alarm situations, chickadees just seem to be particularly nuanced about how they do it.
They hang out with nuthatches, titmice, brown creepers, golden-crowned kinglets, and even seem to keep tabs on the various woodpeckers during winter.
These gregarious social traits all suggest that chickadees are highly invested in reading body language & interacting not just with other members of their own species, but with entirely different species of birds & animals.
For this reason, I often suspect that chickadees are better equipped than other songbird species to accurately read the intentions of human beings and interact with us than the more introverted bird species.
3. Chickadees Occupy A Flexible Forest Niche
Another thing that makes chickadees uniquely suited for having friendly relationships with humans is the particular niche they occupy in the forest.
If you spend a bit of time following and watching flocks of chickadees, one of the things you’ll notice is that chickadees like to explore all different layers of the forest canopy.
They might spend a few minutes down in the low shrubs, then fly up to the treetops to forage, comfortably flitting back and forth, but only rarely landing on the ground.
This is a very distinct range of activity compared to birds who spend almost all their time in the treetops (warblers & vireos), or birds who spend a great deal of time feeding or nesting on the ground (robins, sparrows, starlings).
Chickadees occupy a sort of middle ground in the forest that makes them highly aware of things on the ground, but not with the same urgency as birds who primarily feed or nest on the ground.
This puts them in a unique position among songbirds to study humans very carefully, without being constantly pressured by our presence the way sparrows & robins are.
4. Chickadees Eat Food That Humans Can Easily Share
Of course, one of the major contributing factors to chickadee friendliness is that people feed them! Giving out birdseed is really one of the best ways to attract chickadees closer and help them trust you.
Chickadees just so happen to be diet generalists who enjoy eating everything from insects to fruits, nuts & seeds.
This diet has important differences from many other common songbirds that occupy both wilderness and urban environments.
Part of the reason why robins rarely form the close connections with humans required to be hand-fed is they simply don’t eat the kinds of food that humans typically give.
The easiest food to give birds is birdseed, but robins usually don’t even eat seeds! They instead prefer to hunt their own worms, insects, and the occasional fruit larder.
The other common seed eaters like sparrows, starlings, & juncos usually prefer to have their seeds scattered on the ground.
But chickadees love having a nice suspended perch to sit on like a bird feeder or a raised platform right at the level of an outstretched hand or shoulder.
It’s almost like we were made for each other!
When you consider their social nature, their niche in the forest, diet, and gradual desensitization to human presence, we end up with a perfect storm of behavior traits that makes chickadees perfectly suited to be our friends.
How To Make Friends With Chickadees
So if you want to make friends with your local chickadees, here are some simple guidelines to follow…
1. First, start by going somewhere that chickadees are already used to interacting with people and possibly even being fed.
This could be a city park with foot traffic from bird watchers, or hiking trails close to an urban area.
You can certainly do this in more remote areas, just remember that the less contact your chickadees have had with humans, the longer it will take for them to trust you.
2. Next, pay careful attention to what happens with the birds when you first enter a forested area.
I have a friend who visits a park in Montreal and she tells me the chickadees approach to within 10 or 15 feet when she enters a particular part of the forest.
Animals use distance as a way of non-verbally communicating feelings of trust or safety, so if you see chickadees approaching you, it’s likely they have already had previous interactions with people.
3. Finally – put some birdseed in your hands and stand very still & quiet with your hands outstretched and there’s a high likelihood for chickadees to land on you.
And voila, you’ve just made friends with a chickadee. It really is that simple.
Repeat these steps as often as you want. Try it in different locations and you’ll notice that chickadees really do alter their behavior according to past experiences.
I’ll also mention that some people are like chickadee magnets. I have a friend who seems to have a new story about chickadees landing on him every time we speak, and it’s usually not that he was feeding them.
I hope this exploration of chickadees has helped you appreciate the special characteristics that make these little songbirds such great friends.
Next time you need a little boost in happiness, go find some chickadees and they’ll help you out!