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  • Patrick Durkin

Chickadees Make Summer Homes in 3D Targets

A flying dark blur caught my eye a few summers ago as I pulled the first arrow from my backyard deer target.


Startled, I scanned the trees in the blur’s direction, but saw nothing more.


Hmm. Maybe it was just my imagination, or maybe my peripheral vision had deceived me. It happened so fast. Seconds later I resumed pulling arrows while shifting my thoughts to desk work waiting inside.


When I shot another round of 20 arrows the next day at lunchtime, I had forgotten the dark blur. When I approached the 3D target and braced it with my hip to aid the arrow pulling, I heard a rushing, fluttering sound as something blurred past the target’s front.


Now convinced that a bird had raced past me two straight days, I looked and listened more carefully. Agitated calls of “tshe, daigh daigh daigh” drew me to a chickadee flitting about an elm’s branches 10 yards away.


Then I looked around the life-size deer target, figuring the bird must be nesting nearby. My search ended when I spotted a hole centering the white throat patch on my plastic-foam deer target. A rifle-hunter trying a neck shot couldn’t have center-punched the spot much better.


Would nesting chickadees be so bold to set up a nursery inside my deer target? After leaning my full quiver against the target’s body, I slowly lifted off the fake deer’s head and looked down the neck shaft. Sure enough. A petite hair-lined nest at the bottom held nine small eggs.


Before sliding the deer head back into position, I admired the 5- to 6-inch tunnel that Ma and Pa Chickadee had apparently pecked through the target’s neck and upper body. Its circumference was about that of a cardboard cylinder from a toilet-paper roll.


John James Audubon long ago noted that the chickadee’s bill isn’t designed for the woodpecker’s labors. Maybe so, but what chickadees lack in equipment they apparently overcome in want-to.


Just to confirm things and learn more, I looked up the black-capped chickadee in our bird encyclopedia, and contacted some birding friends. Yep. The nest was inside a cavity and about 3 feet off the ground. Blackcaps seldom nest higher than 10 feet, and they often use holes made or begun by squirrels or woodpeckers.


However, chickadees don’t hesitate to create their own nesting cavities from rotting stumps or tree trunks. We can now add “relatively new Glen-Del 3D plastic-foam deer targets” to the chickadee’s list of potential dwellings.


The fake deer’s jaw serves as an overhang, shielding the 1.5-inch opening. The blackcaps drop inside to build nests at the bottom of the circular shaft.


Some birders create similar setups by fitting a Styrofoam block into their homemade backyard birdhouses. And to prevent cats, mice and snakes from intruding, they mount their birdhouses atop a steel pipe. This mounting system makes it easy to set up houses in winter, hoping woodpeckers will excavate a cavity, and move them in spring before smaller birds start nesting.


After a Madison birder put up several Styrofoam-filled birdhouses one November at his home and those of a few friends and co-workers, he received a surprise. He learned Downy woodpeckers, not chickadees, excavated shafts in the plastic-foam. Sometimes the woodpeckers lived in the cavity for a few days, but none nested there.


He thinks chickadees don’t create the cavities, but often finish them to their specifications before nesting. In addition to a fledge of chickadees, these modified birdhouses sometimes produce two fledges of wrens each year. When he checked his Styrofoam-lined houses in rural areas, he also found bluebirds using them, presumably at the chickadee’s expense.


Further reading revealed that I would have to shoot arrows at other targets for about three to four weeks to allow the eggs to hatch and fledglings to leave. No big deal. I have alternative practice targets, and returned to the birdhouse target after verifying the chickadees had moved out.


I figured that I owed chickadees at least that small favor. The deer hunter in me has long appreciated this species for its soft whistles and steady companionship during November’s long vigils in the woods and forests. If there’s a prettier sound in a snowy woods than the melancholy “phoebe” of unseen chickadees I haven’t heard it.


And with the exception of gray jays in Northern forests, you can’t find a bolder bird than the blackcap chickadee. Until bait piles littered our deer woods, I often wondered how chickadees knew who carried food and, more importantly, who would share it. More clear was that they valued granola bars and braunschweiger sandwiches more than I could.


Even so, sometime before next spring I’ll clean their nest cavity inside my target and patch it with injection foam. Don’t fret. I’ll provide alternative, compensatory housing. I know of some freshly cut white-cedar logs with rotting interiors in southern Ashland County. I’ll bet I can cut 2- or 3-foot sections from them, attach a floor and roof, and place them where they’ll be used.


Although we seldom see these little birds when their motivations turn from mooching to parenting, we know we’ll seldom receive more enjoyment from smaller packages.

An adult chickadee is about to launch from its nesting cavity in a 3D deer target.

— Patrick Durkin photos

As nine chickadee eggs begin hatching, the chicks beg for food within minutes.

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