The Carolina Chickadee

Picture of a Carolina chickadee bird

The Carolina chickadee is one of the four birds James Audubon discovered and named. With a breeding population of nearly 12 million, the Carolina chickadee is not considered at risk, although its population did decline by 17 percent between 1996 and 2015 for unknown reasons. The entire population of Carolina chickadee birds lives within the U.S.

Appearance

The Carolina chickadee is a very small bird weighing less than a half of an ounce on average. They have a deep black head and chin, white cheek just below the eye, and a dark gray back with a light gray breast. Their heads are very large with a short and stocky neck and their bills are small and thinner than a finch’s but thicker than a warbler’s.

The Carolina chickadee is quite curious and intelligent and looks very similar to the black-capped chickadee, although differing slightly in coloration and song. The Carolina chickadee can be found in the south-eastern U.S., ranging as far north as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and as far south and west as Kansas and Texas. The Carolina chickadees tend to stay at lower elevations in the Appalachian mountains, with only black-capped chickadees found at higher altitudes.

These two species do hybridize where the black-capped and Carolina chickadees overlap in range creating offspring very difficult to tell apart from the other chickadees. The offspring also pick either the black-capped or Carolina chickadee song (or some combination of the two) making them particularly difficult to distinguish.

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Habitat and feeding

The Carolina chickadee prefers habitat in swamps, forests, riparian areas, and parks with either all deciduous trees or a mix of deciduous and coniferous woodland. They are also common in wooded urban and suburban areas. While less common at feeders than the black-capped chickadee, the Carolina chickadee will come to feeders for sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet.

These intelligent, curious birds birds are quite approachable and very friendly. They feed mostly on insects, seeds, and berries, with caterpillars making up the majority of their diets in the summer, and an even mix of vegetable and insect matter in the winter. They also feed on moths, beetles, aphids, and spiders.

At feeders, the Carolina chickadee will usually take only one seed at a time and fly off to feed on the seed away from other birds. Typically they leave two to five feet of space between themselves and other chickadees at all times. When the birds get closer than this, the dominant bird will often let out a series of agitated gargled calls to scare the other bird off.

They hop from twigs to branches, sometimes catching insects while hovering or flying out in mid-air. To feed, the Carolina chickadee often presses its food beneath its feet against tree bark to peck at the insects, berries, and seeds – sometimes hanging upside down to get the best angles.

Flocking

During warmer months (except during breeding season) Carolina chickadees will flock with many other birds in large groups. However, during the winter, they whittle down to flocks of only two to eight birds and aggressively defend their territory against other birds and chickadees.

Each member in these small flocks has a rank. In spring, the highest ranking bird and its mate will nest within the territory they created during the winter. The other, lower-ranking birds search for nesting sites outside of the territory and often don’t nest that season at all.

Most members of these small winter flocks stay together all season, however, some chickadees have been known to be “flock switchers” and will jump to other flocks permanently or multiple times throughout a season, often changing rank within each different flock.

During winter, Carolina chickadees are found with other birds about half the time, typically flocking with the more dominant tufted titmouse. They also flock with black-capped chickadees, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, red-breasted, white-breasted and brown-headed nuthatches, brown creepers, and downy and hairy woodpeckers. In these flocks, the Carolina chickadees or titmice often lead the other birds.

Although during the colder months Carolina chickadees have the ability to lower their body temperatures to a purposeful state of hypothermia – called torpor – only about 40 to 60 percent of these birds survive the winter.

Carolina chickadee mating and nesting

During mating season, the pairs that mate often stay together for multiple years, however this differs by region. Scientists found that in Texas, nearly all mating Carolina chickadees stayed together where only about half did so in Tennessee.

During nesting, both male and female chickadees will excavate holes for their nest somewhere between two and 25 feet up a tree with the nest holes often facing a clearing. They will also seek out cavities or man-made nesting boxes. Typically the female builds the nest, starting with a soft moss and bark base layer and adding hair and other plant fibers to build it out.

At night the female Carolina chickadee sleeps on the nest, while the males sleep nearby in other trees or shrubs. The female will lay between three and 10 eggs and only produce one brood a season. Because of the importance of the single brood, if nesting is not working between the pair, the female will leave the territory in search of another mate that season.

Once the eggs are laid, the female will incubate them for 12 to 15 days, with the nestlings remaining in the nest for another 16 to 19 days. The babies are born helpless and naked except for a few bits of down on the head, wings, and butt.

Both males and females take part in feeding their young and will make a hissing noise mimicking a snake if disturbed by other birds or predators.

Even after leaving the nest, the young chickadees and parents will often stay together for much of the season, communicating constantly through song. You can listen to the sound of the Carolina chickadee call song here.

The oldest Carolina chickadee bird was reported to be nearly 11-years-old when it was banded once in 1963 and discovered again in 1974 in West Virginia.