The bullies at the feeder will soon be singing a different tune!

This morning I watched a Black-capped Chickadee displace another chickadee at the feeder. Only after the dominant chickadee had gotten its seed and left could the other bird get its turn to eat. Such scenes of dominance and subordination, called the “pecking order,” play out a hundred times each day as the birds jockey for position at the feeders or vie for choice food plots.

Chickadees at the feeder

The dominant birds get to eat first while others wait their turn.

In the dominance hierarchy, each bird in the flock is ranked. The ranking is determined by degree of aggressiveness, so all the birds in the flock are subordinate to the most aggressive bird, while the lowest ranking member is subordinate to all the other members, with the rest falling somewhere in between. Typically, males dominate females and adults dominate juveniles. This ranking comes into play during feeding, mate selection, and claiming a territory, and actually reduces conflict because each bird knows its “place” within the flock. In winter, this means that precious energy is not wasted in fighting.

This chickadee pair is foraging together but the male will dominate at the feeder. Google images.

This chickadee pair is foraging together, but the male dominates her at the feeder. Google Images.

But sometime in early April, the scales will begin to tip in the female’s favor. As hormones kick in and mate selection begins, the rules of the winter flock will no longer apply. Males will pursue and try to impress the females. During courtship, chickadees and many other birds engage in what’s called mate feeding. The male will fly to the female with an insect or seed and the female, crouched with quivering wings like a baby bird, will accept the offering. This act is the equivalent of a “promise” by the male to feed and care for her while she is on the nest caring for their young.

Even the dusting of snow on the ground from last night does not alter the fact that the sun rises a few minutes earlier each day and sets a few minutes later. The lengthening days signal that spring is on its way and in just a few weeks mating season will begin. The male may rule the roost in the winter flock, but come spring, even the pushiest male will be singing a different tune! The female chickadee so rudely ousted by the male at the feeder need only be patient; her day will come.


23 thoughts on “The bullies at the feeder will soon be singing a different tune!

  1. beautiful pics here! I am watching the cardinals doing the same thing here (Chicago area). Chickadees come too but are very quick at the feeder (we have a platform feeder).

    • Thanks, Anita. Our chickadees forage in flocks with juncos, nuthatches, titmice and a couple of downy woodpeckers. The feeders are busy all day long so it keeps me hopping!

  2. Such pretty little birds, lovely to see them documented on your blog. I have left a couple of blog awards for you over at my blog. Don’t worry too much if you don’t wish to play along with the rules of these things.

    • Thank you for thinking about me, Karen, but I don’t really want any recognition for my blog – I just enjoy doing it. I hope you are enjoying your new home – it sounds lovely. We just moved into our log home about a year ago and it takes a while to get organized!

    • Everybody loves chickadees – what’s not to love, right? It tells me my time has been well spent when someone says they learned something from my blog. Thanks!

  3. Great pics of the chickadees and really enjoyed how you tell their story. New to your blog, just saw recommendation at The Garden Smallholder, really enjoying it.

    • Thanks, Andrea. Glad you hopped over from Karen’s blog. I took a peek at yours and will check back to see how your gardening is coming.

  4. Hi, Jo Ann: I had just finished watching (from inside!) several little chickadees, juncos. and a pair of cardinals feeding at our feeders when I read your blog! I am always fascinated by watching the pecking order of the birds! Dan of course always comments on how that’s they way nature intended everyone to be! Love, Margie

    • And I’m sure he brings you food when you’re sick, so it’s all good! Bill and I just got back from a walk and saw little green plants will teeny, tiny white flowers – the first signs of spring! The tips of the daffodils are just peeking through the dirt. Hope they don’t freeze! xoxo

  5. Hi, JoAnn. At the start of a major snow storm here in the Twin Cities and birds are hunkered down. Seeing your cute chickadees makes up for my lack of sightings today.

    • Yeah, I’ve been watching that storm on the news. Hope you don’t lose power like so many New Englanders did. We just got back from a walk and I noticed the tips of my daffodils are poking through! Seems too soon so I hope they’ll be okay. Stay safe and warm!

  6. Great shots of the birds on the feeders and a lovely description. I think your Chickadees are related to our Blue Tits they are similar in shape and habit, and are a joy to watch as they scramble for food at the feeding station.


    • Thanks, Susan. Tits and chickadees are members of the paridae family. Interesting fact from Wikipedia: In Britain, Great Tits and Blue Tits famously learned to break open the foil caps sealing bottles of milk that had been delivered to homes to get at the cream floating on top.

      • Yes that is quite right We used to suffer from that but now get milk in plastic bottles from the supermarket. Thanks for reminding me of that time past when life was slower and we had milkmen delivering!

  7. Sounds like most “Flocks” to me. Thanks for the winged perspective…. Parallels are everywhere across nature! Thought provoking observation.TU

  8. You’re absolutely right, Richard. Courtship is a give-and-take ritual that pretty much spans all of nature – even plants and animals have to “give” in order to “get.” We humans may have ramped it up a few levels, but it’s still all about competition and survival of the species!

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