Appearance. Many people are familiar with the omnipresent black-capped chickadee. Minnesota's other chickadee, the boreal chickadee, has sometimes been described as a black-capped dipped in cocoa powder. The birds are similar in size and shape, but the boreal has reddish-brown flanks, a brown head, and a grayish-brown back. Sexes appear identical. The boreal chickadee's distinctive husky, lazy, and nasal-sounding call is said to resemble that of the black-capped suffering from a cold.
Range and Habitat. Named for the habitat type it requires, the boreal chickadee is a year-round resident of boreal forests from Alaska to eastern Canada, as well as northern portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New England. This species' northern range coincides with that of the white spruce. In Minnesota, boreal chickadees breed primarily from northern Aitkin County to the tip of the Arrowhead, and west to eastern Marshall and Roseau counties. The boreal chickadee is most often associated with black spruce–tamarack bogs and other lowland coniferous habitats. Outside of the state it also breeds in more upland coniferous forests as well as mixed coniferous-deciduous woodlands.
Breeding. Boreal chickadees nest in cavities of trees with soft or rotten heartwood. They will excavate their own holes or use cavities created by woodpeckers. Most nest sites are only a few feet above the ground.
The female will lay a clutch of 5-8 eggs in a nest of moss often lined with fur and feathers. She incubates the eggs while the male dutifully provides her with food, a task he continues when she is brooding the hatchlings. After that, both parents feed the young until they leave the nest. The fledged chickadees will remain with the parents for two more weeks.
Behavior. Boreal chickadees eat mainly insects and insect larvae, pupae, and eggs, though they also eat seeds. They glean this food from the bark and foliage of trees, typically higher in the canopy than their cousin the black-capped. Boreal chickadees rarely visit bird feeders, unless these feeding stations have suet or peanut butter. In winter, they often associate with black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers. Spotting boreal chickadees among these other more abundant, but similarly sized, birds is challenging. In natural settings without feeders, boreal chickadees forage in social groups. Their winter diet is supplemented by food stashed on the undersides of branches, a trick that keeps food accessible once the tree is snow laden.
Status. The continental population of the boreal chickadee is healthy because its breeding range is so vast and remote. Minnesota's population, being at the southern edge of the species' range, could be at risk as a changing climate shifts boreal habitat northward.
Michael Furtman, freelance writer