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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That … a Chickadee or a … ?

What Is That … a Chickadee or a … ?


We have come to recognize many bird sounds we hear in nearby trees while sitting in our screened-in porch at the cottage, and have come to distinguish among several distinct sounds which encourages us to scrutinize the trees.  We are often rewarded by the sight of small, greyish and white birds with black caps or small brown birds searching for food.  We see these year-round.  The question always arises, “what is that, a chickadee, a nuthatch or a creeper?” A few quick photos help confirm which bird it is.

We regularly see four different small song birds, typically hunting alone in trees for insects, spiders, insect and spider eggs, or seeds and nuts lodged in crevices in a tree’s bark.  They are members of the families: Paridae (chickadees) which are characterized as small, plump, small-billed birds that are acrobatic when feeding; Sittidae (nuthatches) which are small, stout tree-climbers with strong woodpecker-like bills, strong feet and stubby squared-off tails; and, Certhiidae (creepers) which are small, stiff-tailed birds with slender, slightly curved bills.  Three different families, yet we continue to struggle with their identification from a distance.

The most common and easily recognizable is the black-capped chickadee.  Its rounded head has a large black cap, with white cheeks, a black chin and a bright white bib.  The back is grey with black and white tones while the wings and long tail are black.  The belly is faded white with buff edges.  They measure up to 13 centimetres in length and weigh 11 grams. They are agile foragers, moving through tree branches and hanging acrobatically from small branches.


The largest of these four small birds is the white-breasted nuthatch which can measure up to 15 centimetres and weigh 21 grams.  It has a blue-grey back, a dark, narrow cap with a white face and breast.  We most often see them climbing headfirst down tree trunks.


The red-breasted nuthatch, which can measure up to 10 centimetres and weigh 10 grams, is the least frequently seen of the four birds to visit the trees around our cottage.  While having similar body shape and colouring to the white-breasted nuthatch, the red-breasted nuthatch can be distinguished by the broad dark line running through its eye and the breast of rusty tones.  In addition to seeing red-breasted nuthatches head-down on tree trunks, we often see them moving along larger horizontal branches.


Brown creepers measure up to 11.5 centimetres long and weigh up to 8.5 grams.  They are well camouflaged, being brown on their backs with white streaks, white on their undersides, with a distinctive white eye stripe.  They have a slender, downward-curving bill that is well-suited for foraging in bark crevices.  Brown creepers have longer tails than the nuthatches which the brown creepers use to prop themselves against a tree trunk while foraging, much the way woodpeckers use their tails.   Typically we spot these birds spiralling, heads-up, from the base to high up on a tree’s trunk before moving to the base of another tree and repeating the process.


Further information on these four birds can be found in The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America; Jefffrey C. Domm’s Lorimer Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds; and, Gerald McKeating’s Birds of Ottawa and Vicinity.


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