Black-Capped Chickadee

Poecile atricapilla

Black-Capped Chickadee

Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

The curious black-capped chickadee is the state bird of Maine and the most common chickadee in North America, with a widespread range and familiar appearance. Its distinctive calls are also easy to identify, making this bird a popular one for birders developing their birding by ear skills. Overall, this member of the Paridae bird family is one of the most popular backyard birds and a favorite among birders and non-birders alike, and these chickadee facts will tell you why.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Poecile atricapilla
  • Common Name: Black-Capped Chickadee, Chickadee
  • Lifespan: 1.5-2 years
  • Size: 5.5 inches
  • Weight: .35-.4 ounces
  • Wingspan: 8 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Black-Capped Chickadee Identification

These small birds are easily identified by their long tail, round body shape, and thick neck that makes their head appear overly large. Males and females are similar with a thick, well-defined black cap that extends just to the bottom of the eye and contrasts with bright white cheeks. The chin and throat are also black. The back is light gray or olive-gray, and the wings are gray with white edging and a whitewash on the shoulder. The black tail has white edges that are most visible when they flash in flight. The chest and upper abdomen are grayish white, while there is a variable buff wash on the flanks and lower abdomen.

Juveniles look similar to adults but their colors and markings are generally less defined, and the tail is often shorter.

The black-capped chickadee’s most familiar call is the raspy, even “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” for which it was named. Other calls and songs include a piercing, 3-4 syllable whistle, a rapid “ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti” call and “feeee-bee” or “feeee-bee-bee” calls.

Black-Capped Chickadee vs. Carolina Chickadee

The black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee could appear to be twins, but there are certain clues that distinguish the two species. The black-capped chickadee is somewhat larger than its Carolina cousin, with a slightly longer tail. Black-capped chickadees are also slightly more colorful with warmer tones on their flanks and more greenish coloration on their backs, while Carolina chickadees are generally more grayish and have a grey wash on the back of the cheek and less white on their wings. The distinctive southeastern range of the Carolina chickadee also helps for properly identifying these birds, as black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees only overlap in a narrow band where their two ranges meet.

Black-Capped Chickadee Habitat and Distribution

Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents of boreal, deciduous, and mixed forests as well as riparian areas below the tundra line throughout Alaska and Canada. Their southern range extends to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, with small populations even further south in the upper elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

Migration Pattern

When food sources are limited in northern regions, black-capped chickadees may irrupt far south of their typical range, though otherwise, they do not typically migrate.

Behavior

These are perky, curious birds with hyperactive energy. They forage in trees and shrubs, often clinging upside down to pluck insects from underneath leaves. Very sociable, they are often found in small flocks throughout the year and in larger mixed flocks with juncos, nuthatches, titmice, kinglets, and other small birds in winter. In flight, they have rapid wing beats.

Diet and Feeding

These birds are largely insectivorous, feeding on a wide range of insects, spiders, and larvae. In fall and winter when insect populations are low, black-capped chickadees will also eat seeds, nuts, and berries, and they will visit feeding stations for suet and peanut butter.

Black-capped chickadees regularly hide food in thousands of locations, including wedging seeds and nuts into the cracks of bark, knotholes of trees, and any tight space among branches. They have a remarkable memory for their food storage, returning to caches weeks later if necessary. When feeding, they demonstrate a complex flock hierarchy with dominant birds feeding first, particularly at feeders. They are unlikely to linger at feeders, however, and typically grab a seed quickly before flying off with it to a slightly more concealed perch to feed.

Nesting

Black-capped chickadees are monogamous birds. Both partners work together to excavate a nesting cavity and line it with bits of leaves, grass, moss, fur, feathers, and similar materials. Cavities may be located 5-40 feet above the ground, and these birds will readily use birdhouses of the appropriate size.

Eggs and Young

A mated pair of black-capped chickadees will produce one brood of 5-9 oval-shaped eggs each year. The eggs are white or pale buff with fine red-brown spots, usually concentrated at the larger end. Both parents incubate the nest for 11-13 days, and the helpless young will remain in the nest with the female parent for 14-18 days after hatching.

Black-Capped Chickadee Conservation

While these widespread birds are not considered threatened or endangered, they are still at risk from habitat loss, particularly in northern areas where logging operations can decimate forests. They are adaptable to urban and suburban settings, however, and encouraging mature trees and preserving snags for nesting are great steps to help protect black-capped chickadees. Feral cats and outdoor cats are also grave threats to these birds, and backyard birders should take all appropriate steps to remove cats from their yard if chickadees are regular guests.

Tips for Backyard Birders

A black-capped chickadee is often one of the first birds to discover a new feeder, and they are common backyard visitors, particularly in winter. Birders who offer suet, peanuts, peanut butter, and black oil sunflower seeds or hulled sunflower seeds will see these birds regularly. Individual birds may even become tame enough to be hand-fed. Black-capped chickadees can be encouraged to nest in birdhouses with sawdust or wood shavings in the bottom

How to See This Bird

Within their range, black-capped chickadees are not difficult to find. They are often heard before they are seen, with their distinct "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call ringing out through the woods before the small birds can be located. They are also common in suburban areas where there are plentiful trees, making them even easier to see. Because these birds are very curious, birders can attract them in the field by pishing, though it is not recommended to use extensive recordings to attract chickadees during the breeding season, when they need to be focused on their nests instead of responding to unintended challenges.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Paridae bird family includes 60 species of tits, titmice, and chickadees. In addition to the black-capped chickadee, birders who love these types of birds will also want to learn about other arboreal bird species, including nuthatches and kinglets. Wrens are also similar birds with feisty, active personalities. Otherwise, be sure to visit all our wild bird profiles to learn more about your other favorite bird species!