Tail-Propping Chickadees: A Cold Weather Strategy?


This Black-capped Chickadee was one of several that seemed to thriving in the sub-zero temperatures at Wisconsin Point in February 2011. 

It was a brisk February morning here in Duluth, Minnesota, so I decided to go birdwatching over in Wisconsin to check out the local winter-dwelling gulls. While I was at Wisconsin Point, I encountered a group of high-strung Black-capped Chickadees. They were flitting from seed cluster to seed cluster, just inches above the ground. On this particular morning, occasional wind gusts were driving the wind chill down to between    -25F and -30F, causing me to wonder how chickadees or any bird can endure such conditions. To say it was humbling to see these little troopers out in the bitter cold, would be an understatement. They apparently manage to survive these elements by using their fluffy layer of insulation to conserve the warmth generated by constant feeding and the resulting metabolic processes.

As I marveled at the fortitude of this little flock of eight chickadees, I noticed that while feeding many of them were using their tails for support--touching the ground almost in a woodpecker fashion. They would cling to stems/stalks of grass, pull their legs in (presumably to retain heat) and use their tails as a crutch, or brace to keep them upright as they picked through bent-over seed heads. 


Note that the only points of contact between the ground and these Black-capped Chickadees are their tails. Since there is no flow of blood or other bodily fluids through feathers, there is little if any opportunity for precious heat to be lost through the tail.


I have never heard of chickadees or any other perching birds engaging in such behavior. Various woodpeckers and Brown Creepers regularly exhibit somewhat similar behavior to this, using their tails as a brace, or support as they climb vertically up the sides of trees. When moving up trees, woodpeckers actually open their feet up to let go of the tree for a split second and then pump themselves up the tree using their stiff-shafted tail feathers. 

Going back to the chickadees, it was certainly neat to witness this interesting adaptive behavior. I was unable to find any other accounts describing this type of behavior in Black-capped Chickadees. 

Editors Note: We'd like to thank Erik for sharing this wonderful photo essay. As for the pinkish blush on the underparts of these birds, we can't offer an explanation. Perhaps a member of the BirdFellow community can provide the answer. If you've observed chickadees, or other birds using this tail-propping strategy in cold weather, we'd love to hear about it in a comment. 

All photos by Erik Bruhnke


really great observations and photographs. amazing that such tiny balls of fluff can live in such harsh conditions. I wonder if the tail-propping behavior is a strategy to retain heat or an artifact of the height of the seed heads above the ground? If these seed heads were on taller plants would they be grasping the seed heads in a similar fashion? thoughts?


This piece brings to mind one of the shortest sentences I have read that was written by a noted author. In describing several effects of a brutal winter, Barry Lopez wrote simply, “Chickadees froze.” I believe the story in which this sentence appears was contained in his collection River Notes.

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