Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
The Black-capped Chickadee
The Chickadee is a tiny songbird native to much of the United States and Canada, with relatives in nearly every corner of the continent. It is a regular at backyard feeders, fearless and feisty around other birds, and known for its boldness when it encounters humans. But it’s also a docile bird that causes no trouble for people or other birds, and indeed benefits from human activity in many ways.
The species abundant in the northern United States and Canada is the Black-capped Chickadee. Anyone who puts up a birdfeeder will soon become familiar with this tiny dynamo, and likely it will become one of your favorite visitors. They’re the spunky little birds with the black-topped head and eyes, and they look and act like tiny robbers, coming to swipe your seed.
The Black-capped Chickadee’s antics are fun to watch, especially when several come around at once. Its familiar call of chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee is known to many people who have never even identified one before. Even if you’re not sure if you've ever seen a Black-capped Chickadee, odds are you've heard one if you live within their range.
Let’s take a few minutes to learn more about this slick little character, the bandit at your birdfeeder.
The official scientific name for the Black-capped Chickadee is Poecile atricapillus. It’s considered of the order Passeriformes, what we know as a songbird. Songbirds make up the largest percentage of bird species and are indeed the largest order of vertebrates on our planet. Within this order is the family Paridae, which consists of Chickadees, Tits, and Titmice, and within that family is the genus Poecile.
It might all sound a little confusing until you watch Chickadees and Titmice interacting at a feeder. It’s really not accurate to say they get along, but they do exhibit some of the same quirky characteristics. They even approach feeding the same way, by swiping seeds and retreating into the branches to munch away in peace. It’s definitely easy to see they are related.
Just about all birds of the genus Poecile are small, energetic birds and this Chickadee is no exception. They are very active, and quite brave despite their diminutive size. Adults reach a body length of four to six inches, and they are among the smallest birds you’ll see in your backyard.
Probably because they have evolved to find food in thick forests and scrub, the Chickadee has developed intricate patterns of vocalizations to exchange information with others of its kind. They are a very social bird, and highly communicative. When they find food they will call out, alerting other Chickadees of the new discovery.
In fact, this handy signal even serves to alert other enterprising species, who are more than happy to follow the Chickadee’s lead. As winter nears other small birds may flock along with the Chickadee for this very reason. Within a flock, Chickadees establish a pecking order determined by sex and age and may be dominant over other Chickadee species when they intermix.
The Chickadee does not migrate for the winter months. It stays in the same habitat year-round, and like most birds is capable of surviving the harshest winters. It has the rare ability to decrease its body temperature and enter short periods of torpor in extreme conditions. This may occur at night when temperatures drop, or during extensive storms. But more likely than not you’ll see the little Chickadee flitting around even on cold and snowy days.
Chickadees are very active and very vocal, and if they are around you’ll know it. Especially when birdfeeders and birdbaths are present, these little guys will be easy to spot.
Black-capped Chickadee Sounds and Song
Black-capped Chickadee Habitat and Diet
The Chickadee prefers dense woods, scrub brush and thick vegetation. It does fine in the deepest parts of deciduous forests. However, it also does very well in suburban settings with yards and shrubs. Being a small bird, it easily finds places to roost amid thick branches and bushes, and the influence of humans eliminates some of the predator threats.
Insects, berries, larvae and seeds are preferred dietary items. The Chickadee hunts from branch to branch in the summer months, snatching insects from leaves or even straight out of the air. In the winter it will search for seeds and berries or hunt for dormant insects in the bark of trees.
This interesting bird also caches its food. When food is plentiful, the Chickadee will hide food in tree bark, leaves or tree cavities for later consumption. It can recall the location of its stash for several weeks, which is pretty impressive for an animal with a brain the size of a pea!
When you add birdfeeders to the above mix, it’s easy to see why this little bird does so well in rural and suburban parts of North America.
Nesting and Breeding
Chickadee pairs will nest in holes in trees, either made by the birds themselves or leftover from some other animal such as a woodpecker. These nests can be fairly high off the ground, some twenty feet or more, making them tough for predators to get to. Though the male may help with the hollowing of the nesting space (if necessary), the female alone constructs the nest.
Breeding occurs once per year in the late spring or early summer, and results in a clutch of half a dozen or more eggs. The female will tend to the eggs as the male hunts for food and brings it back to her.
A few weeks after hatching the young will leave the nest and trail behind their parents as they learn to find food for themselves. At first, fed by their parents, they will eventually learn to hunt and even take advantage of birdfeeders.
Witnessing this metamorphosis from downy-feathered fledgling to a self-sufficient adult over the course of several weeks is one of the greatest rewards of observing birds in your backyard!
Range and Relatives
With a range from east coast to west in the northern United States and Canada, the Chickadee is a fairly abundant species. But in some areas of the country a difference in habitat has resulted in a slightly different species. These cousins are very similar in both appearance and behavior, and in some areas, two species mingle.
Black-capped Chickadee relatives include:
- Carolina Chickadee: Nearly identical to the Black-capped Chickadee. Its range butts up against the southern edge of the Black-capped's and continues south to Florida and west to part of Texas. Except for slight differences in vocalizations and appearance these two relatives are almost exactly the same and sometimes interbreed.
- Chestnut-backed Chickadee: Another relative common to the Pacific Northwest. With many similar behaviors, these birds too might be tough to tell apart if not for their pretty brown coloring.
- Mountain Chickadee: Occupies the western regions of the United States, and some areas its territory overlaps with the Black-capped's.
- Boreal Chickadee: Another relative, occupying territory adjacent and north.
It’s easy to see how each of these birds has evolved to fill the same niche in a different habitat.
Black-capped Chickadees in Your Backyard
Chickadees might be the easiest birds to convince to come to your backyard feeder. Once one arrives it won’t be long until there are more. And once they begin to see your feeder as a great place to eat they’ll be around all the time.
There is no downside to this, as these tiny birds cause no issues with homes, people or other birds. Aside from an occasional flap-up with a Sparrow or Titmouse, they rarely show any sign of aggression.
Black-oil sunflower seeds are a big favorite for these little guys. They rarely eat at the feeder, but instead visit in quick sorties, nabbing a seed and executing a “grab and go” technique.
But they usually don’t go far. Up in the branches of a nearby tree, the Chickadee will begin work to get the sunflower seed open. Holding it with its feet, the bird will peck at the hull furiously until it cracks and the soft seed inside is accessible. Seed eaten, hull discarded, it’s back to the birdfeeder for another bite.
Chickadees will call to each other across short distances using several different songs. Some of these will be well-known to anyone who spends a lot of time outside. Occasionally you can get their attention by mimicking their call, but after a couple of attempts they figure out you’re not another Chickadee. It’s always worth a try, and sometimes you can manage a short conversation before they ignore you.
Hand Feeding and Interaction with Humans
The little guys are very docile, and fearless around humans. In fact, they are so fearless that some people are able to get them to take seed straight out of their hand. This is an exercise in patience for sure, on the part of both human and bird.
The biggest way Chickadees have benefited from the presence of humans is simply the way we’ve transformed their territory. Where human presence has been detrimental to some animal species, in the case of a bird such as this we have made life easier for them. Our patchwork of yards, gardens, and shrubbery interspersed with woods make for perfect territory for this songbird. Being that it can roost and nest almost anywhere, we’ve become a great partner to the Chickadee.
Add in birdfeeders and it’s a match made in heaven. This little bird not only survives but thrives amid human habitation, whether or not you choose to feed it out of your hand.
Black-capped Chickadee FAQ
Here a few more interesting facts about this cool little bird:
What is a Black-capped Chickadee’s size?
Chickadees are small birds around 4.7 to 5.9 inches in length. They are among the tiniest visitors you will spot at your feeder and comparable in size to the Tufted Titmouse, American Goldfinch, and Chipping Sparrow.
Do Black-capped Chickadees migrate?
No. Black-capped Chickadees are non-migratory songbirds, and adults remain in the same area year-round. This means you will see them at your birdfeeder during every season.
How long do Black-capped Chickadees live?
Chickadees typically live two or three years, though in rare cases they can live much longer. The oldest known Chickadee lived for over 11 ½ years!
What is the difference between a Black-capped Chickadee and a Carolina Chickadee?
Comparing the Black-capped Chickadee vs. the Carolina Chickadee can be confusing, especially in places where their ranges meet. Visually, the Black-capped Chickadee shows a somewhat sharper contrast between whites and blacks of its plumage, where the Carolina shows grayer. Of course, the easiest way to tell them apart is knowing the range of each bird, and which you should expect to see where you live.
Do chickadees use birdhouses?
Yes. If you put up a birdhouse, there is a chance you could attract a pair of mating Back-capped Chickadees. In the wild, chickadees nest in holes in trees, so a birdhouse could be an excellent spot for them. They may also roost in a birdhouse in winter.
Chickadees are Everywhere!
The Chickadee is a plucky little bird with relatives all throughout North America. It thrives where humans live, but can just as easily make its home in the depths of the forest. Its vocalizations are unique, and its ability to hide food and locate it again impressive.
They’re fearless and docile, bold and friendly. They’ll happily take food from your backyard feeder, or even out of your hand if you’re patient. The Chickadee is one of the most abundant birds in North America, and certainly one of the most interesting.
If you put up a birdfeeder you’ll almost certainly see them come around. If you really want to keep them happy, serve lots of black oil sunflower seeds and transform your backyard into a bird habitat by planting native vegetation and adding a water source. The Chickadees and other birds will love you for it.
The Chickadee Poll
Sources and Further Reading
- Black-capped Chickadee, Audubon Guide to North American Birds
- Black-capped Chickadee Life History, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Black-capped Chickadee, National Wildlife Federation
Questions & Answers
Question: How many Chickadee species are there?
Answer: There are seven species of Chickadee found in the United States. They are:
<b>Black-capped Chickadee: </b> These spunky little birds live across the northern United States, from coast to coast, and as far north as Alaska. As their name suggests, they are recognized by the black caps atop their heads. They are, by far, the most abundant Chickadee species in the United States.
<b>Carolina Chickadee: </b> Lives in the southeastern and south-central parts of United States. They are very similar to the Black-capped Chickadee in appearance. The two are easily confused in areas where they overlap, and they even interbreed.
<b>Chestnut-backed Chickadee: </b> If you live in the coastal Pacific Northwest and California you have a chance of seeing this bird. Their brown coloring distinguishes them from the Black-capped Chickadee.
<b>Mountain Chickadee: </b> Lives in the mountainous, western regions of the United States. While they may overlap with the Black-capped Chickadee in some areas, they are easy to tell apart thanks to the white stripe near their crown.
<b>Boreal Chickadee: </b> Common in Canada and Alaska, the Boreal Chickadee rarely makes an appearance in the lower 48. With their gray coloring, they are easy to identify.
<b>Gray-headed Chickadee: </b> While similar in appearance to the Boreal Chickadee, it isn’t likely you will confuse the two. The Gray-headed Chickadee lives in the frozen remotes of Alaska and is rarely seen.
<b>Mexican Chickadee: </b> As their name suggests, these birds live in Mexico, for the most part. Their northern range does extend slightly into the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico.