The Black-capped Chickadee

The Black-capped Chickadee of North America is a familiar sight both at backyard feeders and in deep wilderness backcountry.
The Black-capped Chickadee is a familiar sight at backyard feeders.

Enormously widespread, almost cartoonishly endearing, and deceptively tough, the Black-capped Chickadee of North America is a familiar sight both at backyard feeders and in deep wilderness backcountry. Its voice – particularly its namesake call, chickadee-dee-dee – is just as familiar, a cheery soundtrack for summertime hikers and winter cross-country skiers alike.

Let’s get to know this nimble, strikingly patterned puffball of a songbird!

Appearance and identification

Across most of its vast U.S. and Canadian range, there’s really no mistaking the Black-capped Chickadee. Disproportionately big-headed – it sometimes seems to mostly be a winged and tailed head – and boldly plumaged, it can be recognized at a quick glance, even if it’s not giving itself away by voice.

Your average Black-capped Chickadee runs about five inches from stubby beak to tail, claims a modest wingspan of six to eight inches, and weighs less than half an ounce. The top of its head, brow, and “bib” are black, contrasting sharply with the white cheeks and breast. The back is greenish-gray, the wing’s flight feathers streaked gray, black, and white. Its flanks tend to be buffy or orangeish. As David Allen Sibley notes in his modern classic The Sibley Guide to Birds, Pacific Northwest populations of the Black-capped Chickadee tend to be the most richly colored.

Black-capped Chickadees in the western mountains could conceivably be confused with the similarly sized Mountain Chickadee, but the latter has a white supercilium – the area above the eye – which gives it a black-masked rather than a black-capped look: quite a conspicuous difference. The Boreal Chickadee crossing paths with the Black-capped in the northern reaches of its range has a brown instead of black cap, while the namesake feature of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee of the Northwest limits identification confusion.

Carolina Chickadee vs Black-capped

More problematic is that narrow zone where the Black-capped Chickadee overlaps with its nearly identical-looking southern cousin, the Carolina Chickadee. For the most part the relatives partition themselves pretty distinctly, the Carolina Chickadee inhabiting the American Southeast mostly outside the Southern Appalachians (which provide a southerly extension of the Black-capped’s range). But the two chickadees do brush feathers in what you might call the “outer” Southeast, where some hybridization apparently occurs.

The Carolina Chickadee is slightly smaller than the Black-capped and also has a proportionately smaller head and a shorter tail; it’s also marginally less bold in coloration, sporting a grayer nape and paler flanks. (Black-capped and Carolina chickadees have distinct songs, but birds of both species can mistakenly learn the other’s melody in the overlap zone, so sound isn’t a terribly reliable “fieldmark” for telling the two apart here.)

Location and habitat

The Black-capped Chickadee ranges across most of the northern two-thirds of the Lower 48 and up into the boreal belt of Canada and Alaska. This is the broadest distribution (by a fair measure) of the seven chickadees native to North America. As we alluded to above, the species extends south along the Appalachian crest, and meanwhile in the American Southwest reaches the northern portion of the Colorado Plateau.

Within that impressive geography the Black-capped Chickadee is nonmigratory, with much of the local population being resident year-round. That means this pipsqueak of a bird has the mettle to endure some pretty gnarly winter weather: Black-capped Chickadees survive subzero temperatures by sheltering in tree cavities, packing on daily fat, and inducing hypothermia at night to reduce their body temperature and metabolic activity.

Young chickadees will sometimes move south in winter, occasionally in mass journeys known as irruptions. These aren’t consistent movements year by year, however.

In spring and summer, mated pairs of chickadees hold nesting territories, while in winter, the birds gather in flocks with clear social hierarchies; these winter flocks commonly include other songbirds, such as nuthatches, woodpeckers, and juncos.

Black-capped Chickadees are primarily forest and woodland dwellers, though as devotees of thickets they’ll readily inhabit dense shrublands and hedgerows. They typically avoid pure coniferous forest (more the haunt of Boreal, Mountain, and Chestnut-backed chickadees), preferring deciduous woods and mixed stands of both conifers and hardwoods. Open woods (which tend to be well stocked with understory thickets) and forest edges serve as Black-capped Chickadee hotspots. The species often seeks out birches and alders for nesting and roosting; willow thickets, such as often shoulder marshes and rivers, are also prized.

The Black-capped Chickadee certainly doesn’t turn up its beak (if you will) at suburban living, either, so long as there are plentiful trees and hedges.

What do Black-capped Chickadees eat?

The black capped chickadee song is well-known to outdoor enthusiastsBlack-capped Chickadees are prime examples of omnivores: that is, organisms that consume both plant and animal matter. Insects and other invertebrates as well as seeds may be considered dietary mainstays. In the warm season, Black-capped Chickadees eat large numbers of caterpillars, moths, spiders, leafhoppers, and other tiny prey, often 80 to 90 percent of their menu this time of year; in winter, they’ll forage for insect and arachnid eggs. These little songbirds will also scavenge carrion, including the carcasses of wolf- and puma-killed ungulates.

Seeds and berries – not to mention suet and other offerings at feeders – supplement the invertebrate fare, especially in winter. Black-capped Chickadees are spry hunters and foragers, flitting from bough to bough, darting across the tops of twigs or hanging from the underside as they seek out spiders, insects, berries, and seeds. As they hop and clamber along, they’ll make short flight bursts to catch insects on the wing. Such intensive foraging is most easily seen in winter, when chickadee flocks noisily scour groves and thickets, then flit short distances to the next likely larder.

As many people who maintain backyard bird feeders know, Black-capped Chickadees will store (aka cache) food for later – another adaptation that helps them weather tough northern winters.

Black-capped Chickadee Song / Call

Both the song and the classic call of the Black-capped Chickadee are well known to many an outdoor enthusiast, even those who don’t count themselves birders and couldn’t tell you what’s making the noise. In most parts of its range, the Black-capped’s song – employed by males to attract mates and by both sexes in the advertisement of territory – is a sweet, slightly plaintive, two-note whistle of fee-bee or fee-bee-ee. Pacific Northwest birds make a variation of this, typically three or four fee whistles on the same pitch.

The signature raspy chick-a-dee-dee call note, meanwhile, is uttered year-round as a means of keeping tabs on mates and flock members and to sound the alarm for a predator. Evidence suggests the more dees tacked onto the end of the call, the more urgent or dangerous the threat. (Such small, agile, forest-hunting birds of prey as sharp-shinned hawks and pygmy owls are most threatening to adult chickadees.)

One study revealed Black-capped Chickadees used a “seet” alarm call to warn of a raptor in flight, while announcing a perched one with the chick-a-dee-dee (etc.) signal. That call may also be used to rally other chickadees to actively mob a perched hawk or owl.

Interestingly, other songbirds (such as those traveling with chickadees in mixed winter flocks) appear to respond to the chickadee’s alarm call, both to flee from danger and also to join in mobbing a potential predator.

You can listen to the sound of the Black-capped Chickadee’s song here.

Nests and mating / eggs and young

Male and female Black-capped Chickadees are monogamous breeders and may maintain pair bonds in the winter flocks; increasing territoriality by mated pairs over nesting habitat in spring helps break up those flocks.

The chickadees are cavity-nesters, either occupying old woodpecker or other existing holes or excavating their own, which they prefer to do in the punky wood of dead boughs, snags, or tall stumps. Susan M. Smith notes in her Wild Bird Guides: Black-Capped Chickadee that the birds often discard of the wood chips produced by their hole-making some distance from the nest site, perhaps an attempt to better keep it off the radar of potential predators. Both male and female excavate holes, and the pair may begin several candidates before selecting one for brooding.

Female chickadees build the nest itself inside the cavity, usually with an outer layer of bark, moss, and other coarse plant materials lined with softer seedhead fluff, mammal fur, and the like.

Typical Black-capped Chickadee clutch size is on the order of six to eight, the female usually laying one egg per day. They tend to hatch within two weeks, during which time and throughout incubation the male brings food to his family. Once the nestlings are older, the female joins the foraging. Within 16 or so days, the nestlings fledge and leave the nest, with a transition period afterward in which the parents continue to feed them while they hone their own food-getting skills.

References

  1. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds: Black-capped Chickadee.
  2. Martin, Alexander C. et al. 1951. American Wildlife & Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. Dover Publications, Inc.
  3. Schwartz, Joel. 23 June 2005. “Chickadees’ Alarm-calls Carry Information About Size, Threat of Predator.”UW News.
  4. Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf.
  5. Smith, Susan M. 1997. Wild Bird Guides: Black-Capped Chickadee. Stackpole Books.