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Chickadees: An Illustrated Guide to the Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus; formerly Parus atricapillus)

Updated on June 17, 2011
Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee | Source

These plucky little black, gray, and white darlings—among the most adored songbirds—make the rounds of neighborhood feeders, often dining while perched upside down. Relatively tame, they can be tempted, with a little patience, to feed from the hand, landing on an outstretched palm to nibble on seeds.

Chickadees, sometimes called Tit or Titmice, often form the nucleus of mixed flocks of woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers, and kinglets.

Good Looks

Chickadees are beautiful little birds with black cap and throat, white cheeks, soft gray back, and tan to white underparts. Wing feathers are edged in thin white bands. The tail is gray or white. The short beak is dark. The wings are short, the tail, long. The male, female, and juvenile all look alike.

Close-up head shot of Black-capped Chickadee.
Close-up head shot of Black-capped Chickadee. | Source

Size

Overall size: 4¾–5¾" (12-15 cm)

Weight: .4 oz (11 g) (About the weight of a dime and two nickles.)


Habitat

A common visitor to back-yard feeders, especially in the winter, their natural habitat is deciduous and mixed forests (especially along the edges) and open woodlands, but they are a common urban dweller.



Bird Songs Bible: The Complete, Illustrated Reference for North American Birds
Bird Songs Bible: The Complete, Illustrated Reference for North American Birds

A gorgeous table-top book with beautiful recordings of songbirds!

 
Black-capped Chickadee landing on gloved hand.
Black-capped Chickadee landing on gloved hand. | Source

Nesting

Generally monogamous, pairs are usually formed in the fall. Then, in the spring, chickadee flocks disband and move into wooded areas to nest. The nest is formed into a cup made up of grass, fur, plant down, feathers, and moss, often built into a hole in a rotten tree, excavated by the mates. They also use natural cavities and man-made birdhouses.

Nests can be as much as 10 inches deep, dug out using the birds' beaks, with the telltale chips being scattered by the birds so as not to attract notice. A flap is constructed on one side of the nest, which is folded over by these smart little birds to conceal the nest from predators.

Both male and female clear the nest cavity, but the female is the nest builder. She then lays and incubates 5–10 (usually 6–8) brown-speckled white eggs once a year. Incubation is 11 to 13 days. Both parents tend the young for about two weeks. Once they leave the nest they stay close by for parental feeding up to two weeks more. Chickadees breed only once per season.

Range and Migration

There are seven species of chickadees in North America; the best known are Black-capped, Carolina, and Boreal.

Range Black-capped Chickadees are residents of the U.S. from northern New Jersey to Missouri, New Mexico, and northern California, ranging up into Alaska and across southern Canada to Newfoundland. The slightly smaller Carolina Chickadee (Poecile or Parus carolinensis) does not overlap with the Black-capped, but ranges from central New Jersey to southeastern Kansas and as far south as central Florida, the Gulf Coast and southeast Texas. The Boreal Chickadee (Poecile or Parus hudsonicus), which has a brown crown and back, is the northern species, inhabiting the coniferous forests of Canada.

Migration Although they are permanent residents, in the winter Black-capped Chickadees can range slightly further south into Maryland and Texas. Sometimes they make these moves in very large numbers. Nonetheless, most stay put, likely due to their ability to drop body temperature about 20° F to conserve energy and endure the cold.

Black-capped Chickadee perching on a hand.
Black-capped Chickadee perching on a hand. | Source

Food

They will eat all kinds of insects—including large caterpillars, spiders, slugs, etc.—as well as seeds (such as sunflower seeds), shelled peanuts, and fruit. They are loyal backyard birdseed and suet feeders.

Song and Call

Known for its raspy "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" or whistled "fee-bee" or "fee-bee-bee", with the first note higher and stronger. Sophisticated communicators, they have a warning call that seems to be understood by other bird species that flock around them, who then sometimes join together to chase the predator away.

According to some sources, the song of the Black-capped Chickadee is one of the most complex vocalizations of all animals, acting as a contact call, an alarm call, to identify an individual, or to indicate recognition of a particular flock.

Chickadees appear at bird feeders everywhere, even conjested urban and suburban areas.
Chickadees appear at bird feeders everywhere, even conjested urban and suburban areas. | Source

Social Behavior

Backyard feeders are ideal spots for observing the pecking order of a flock of chickadees. They have a linear hierarchy, and the most assertive pair will dominate the other birds of their respective sexes.

Black-capped chickadee perched on a branch.
Black-capped chickadee perched on a branch. | Source

Longevity

Most Black-capped Chickadees live about 2½ years; the longevity record is 12 years, 5 months.

State Bird

The Black-capped Chickadee is the state bird of Maine and Massachusetts.

Source
Black-capped Chickadees are a familiar sight at bird feeders across America.
Black-capped Chickadees are a familiar sight at bird feeders across America. | Source

Attract and Care for Chickadees

Put out a new feeder and Black-capped Chickadees may be your first visitors. These birds are among the most responsive to human bird calls and can be taught to feed from your hand.

Man-made birdhouses need a 1 1/8 inch (2.9 cm) diameter entrance hole. Anything larger, say 1½ inch (3.8 cm), will encourage swallows and bluebirds. Unfortunately, the size used by chickadees will also invite the unwelcome house wren, known to destroy the eggs and young of its chickadee competitor.

Mount the birdhouse 5 to 15 feet (1.5–4.6 m) above ground, oriented to received sunshine 40-50% of the day. Since chickadees will use birdhouses left up over the winter as roost sites, clean them as soon as the young have fledged. Then clean them again for springtime breeding.

Predators include certain hawks and owls, raccoons, squirrels, and opossums.

References

Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

www.all-birds.com

www.allaboutbirds.org

The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife, Published in collaboration with the American Birding Association, Christopher W. Leahy, Princeton University Press, 2004.

The Armchair Birder, Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds, John Yow, The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Birds in Your Backyard, A Bird Lover's Guide to Creating a Garden Sanctuary, Robert J. Dolezal, The Reader's Digest Association, 2004.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, John Bull and John Farrand, Jr. , Chanticleer Press, Inc., Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994.

Field Guide and Audio CDs, Birds of Michigan, Stan Tekiela, Adventure Publications, Inc. 1999.

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    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Thank you for your lovely comment, AliciaC. Sometimes I can't decide which is my favorite bird - the darling little black capped chickadees or the gorgeous yellow goldfinches. I think it's whichever bird I'm looking at right now! I found another great site for bird songs and calls. It has very clear recordings of 100s of birds: http://www.enature.com/birding/audio.asp

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I love black-capped chickadees, which are very common where I live. Thank you for a beautiful, interesting and informative hub! I enjoyed reading it and listening to the sounds.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Peggy W - Thank you so much for your comment! I was just watching a couple of Chickadees at our feeder. Endless pleasure. Take care.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Great hub about a beautiful bird. Thanks for all of your well researched information and photos. Enjoyed it!

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Hi Stephanie, Thank you for your comments. I don't know anyone who has tried and succeeded at the hand feeding, except with hummingbirds, but by all reports I read (and we can see in the photos) it is quite doable if we are patient and practice. Wouldn't it be lovely? I hope to do it someday. Take care. ~JSP

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      7 years ago from USA

      I've always loved chickadees as they were the most frequent visitors to our bird feeders when we lived in central New York and before that, in New Jersey. I'm sorry now that we didn't teach them to come to our hands as you showed in your hub. I still enjoy hearing their familiar calls when we are camping as they seem to show up in so many places across the U.S. Thanks for a very informative hub!

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Hi Stephanie, I thought it was interesting that the different types of Chickadees do not overlap territory...so I've never seen a Carolina Chickadee. I also thought it interesting that Chickadees are known at tits. They are both in the family Paridae. Tits with crests are called titmice and those with dark caps and bibs without a crest are usually called chickadees. Hence the close connection between them.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Lady_E, I'm so glad you stopped by my hub. Thanks for your comment!

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      They are lovely. It's nice to read about birds.

      Thanks.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      7 years ago from New Jersey

      JSParker, I really like chickadees. My husband and I had a hard time identifying at first because the black-capped and Carolina seem so similar. But after a posting to WhatBird along with our location, we found out we had Carolinas. I saw you mentioned the Titmouse. I love tufted Titmice: they are so cool to look at.

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