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Black-capped chickadees astonishing secrets

  • 2/14/2023 11:58:00 AM
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Black-capped chickadees survive the harshest winters with amazing adaptive behaviors and abilities. From adjusting their core body temperatures to shedding and adding brain cells to memorizing hundreds of locales of stashed foods, these tiny wonders have astonishing secrets.

Weighing only one-half ounce, chickadees consume as much as 30 times the amount of food in winter as it does in the summer, using a strategy known as scatter hoarding to maintain that diet.

Chickadees would store one or two bits of food - tree-infesting caterpillars, insects, spiders and seeds - in hundreds or thousands of places over several acres during warmer months. In far northern latitudes, they may hoard a half-million items. Caches are usually within feet of where the food is found. Sunflower seeds from feeders are taken farther away, secretly stashed from competitors. Before stuffing and concealing the item in rough bark, branches and crevices, chickadees will remove larvae heads, moth wings and the shells of large seeds.

How does it remember the hundreds of hiding spots of newly hidden food caches? In October, chickadees grow new cells in the brain’s hippocampus, critical to memory. By spring, millions of these cells die as hidden food dwindles and memory is less vital.

Surviving a cold Iowa winter requires more than down and fat, so chickadees shiver to maintain minimal body temperatures. By gradually lengthening times between shivers, body temperatures drop as much as 10 degrees, requiring 20 percent less in caloric needs.

By reducing metabolism at night, an extra layer of fat is added by morning. On cold nights, modest energy stores last until dawn by lowering their normal 108-degree temperature to 86 degrees through controlled hypothermia. This nocturnal semi-hibernation slows metabolism rates by 25 percent.

Iowans can support this amazing little bird and the 1,000-plus other species of songbirds, bald eagles, salamanders, turtles, monarchs and bees and more that make up the majority of wildlife in Iowa by contributing to the Chickadee-checkoff on their state income tax form.

The Fish and Wildlife Fund, commonly known as the “Chickadee Check-off,” is a mechanism the Iowa Legislature created in the 1980s for Iowans to donate to wildlife conservation on the Iowa state income tax form. Before this time, so called “non-game” wildlife had no dedicated funding. It is one of the only funding sources for the Iowa DNR’s Wildlife Diversity program, which is responsible for these species. 

The Fish and Wildlife check-off is on line 57a of the 2022 IA 1040 Iowa Income Tax Return. Once located, donating is easy: simply write-in the amount to donate and the sum is either automatically deducted from the refund or added to the amount owed.

Funding helps to improve wildlife habit, restore native wildlife, provide opportunities for citizens to learn about Iowa’s natural resources and much more. Recent projects have been investigating the nesting success of barn owls and determining the status of the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee. 

New this year, donors who miss donating on the tax form, can donate to the non-game program on the web at