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Black-Capped Chickadee
Poecile atricapillus
Anatomy of a Bird

A bird almost universally considered “cute” thanks to its oversized round head, tiny body, and curiosity about everything, including humans. The chickadee’s black cap and bib; white cheeks; gray back, wings, and tail; and whitish underside with buffy sides are distinctive. Its habit of investigating people and everything else in its home territory, and quickness to discover bird feeders, make it one of the first birds most people learn.

Range Map My Photos Of This Bird
Spotted_Sandpiper_AllAm
© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cool Facts Taxonomic Hierarchy Illustration
  • The Black-Capped Chickadee hides seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.
  • Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.
  • Chickadee calls are complex and language-like, communicating information on identity and recognition of other flocks as well as predator alarms and contact calls. The more dee notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level.
  • Winter flocks with chickadees serving as the nucleus contain mated chickadee pairs and nonbreeders, but generally not the offspring of the adult pairs within that flock. Other species that associate with chickadee flocks include nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, creepers, warblers and vireos.
  • Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.
  • There is a dominance hierarchy within flocks. Some birds are “winter floaters” that don’t belong to a single flock—these individuals may have a different rank within each flock they spend time in.
  • Even when temperatures are far below zero, chickadees virtually always sleep in their own individual cavities. In rotten wood, they can excavate nesting and roosting holes entirely on their own.
  • Because small songbirds migrating through an unfamiliar area often associate with chickadee flocks, watching and listening for chickadee flocks during spring and fall can often alert birders to the presence of interesting migrants.
  • The oldest known wild chickadee lived to be 12 years and 5 months old.
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Paridae
Genus: Poecile
Species: Poecile atricapillus
     Subspecies:
  • Poecile atricapillus atricapillus
  • Poecile atricapillus bartletti
  • Poecile atricapillus fortuita
  • Poecile atricapillus garrina
  • Poecile atricapillus nevadensis
  • Poecile atricapillus occidentalis
  • Poecile atricapillus practica
  • Poecile atricapillus septentrionalis
  • Poecile atricapillus turneri
Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley

Description

Sound

Breeding

Adult Description

Size & Shape

This tiny bird has a short neck and large head, giving it a distinctive, rather spherical body shape. It also has a long, narrow tail and a short bill a bit thicker than a warbler’s but thinner than a finch’s.

Color Pattern

The cap and bib are black, the cheeks white, the back soft gray, the wing feathers gray edged with white, and the underparts soft buffy on the sides grading to white beneath. The cap extends down just beyond the black eyes, making the small eyes tricky to see.

In most of North America, the song is a simple, pure 2 or 3-note whistled fee-bee or hey, sweetie. In the Pacific Northwest, the song is 3 or 4 notes on the same pitch; the song is also different on Martha's Vineyard in MA. In much of the range, males begin singing in mid-January, and the song increases in frequency as winter progresses. Females also sing occasionally.

  • Breeding Location: Forest edge, Bushes, shrubs, and thickets
  • Breeding Type: Monogamous, Solitary nester
  • Breeding Population: Fairly common to common
  • Egg Color: White with red brown markings
  • Number of Eggs: 2 - 6
  • Incubation Days: 11 - 13
  • Egg Incubator: Female
  • Nest Material: Lined with vegation, moss, feathers, hair, and insect cocoons.
  • Migration: Nonmigratory
  • Condition at Hatching: Eyes closed, naked except for 6 small patches of mouse-gray downy feathers on the back and head.
Body Head Flight
  • Length Range: 14 cm (5.5 in)
  • Weight: 11 g (0.4 oz)
  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)
  • Color Primary: Gray
  • Underparts: White with olive-buff wash on sides.
  • Upperparts: Gray
  • Back Pattern: Solid
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Solid
  • Bill Shape: All-purpose
  • Eye Color: Brown.
  • Head Pattern: Capped
  • Crown Color: Black
  • Forehead Color: Black
  • Nape Color: Black
  • Throat Color: Black
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Slow flitting short flights with rapid wing beats., On longer flights often folds wings to sides after several quick shallow strokes before repeating.
  • Wingspan Range: 19-22 cm (7.5-8.5 in)
  • Wing Shape: Pointed-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Pointed Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Solid
  • Upper Tail: Gray
  • Under Tail: Gray
  • Leg Color: Gray-black

Behavior

Food Habitat
Chickadees are active, acrobatic, curious, social birds that live in flocks, often associating with woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, vireos, and other small woodland species. They feed on insects and seeds, but seldom perch within several feet of one another while taking food or eating. Flocks have many calls with specific meanings, and they may contain some of the characteristics of human language. In winter Black-capped Chickadees eat about half seeds, berries, and other plant matter, and half animal food (insects, spiders, suet, and sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses). In spring, summer, and fall, insects, spiders, and other animal food make up 80-90 percent of their diet. At feeders they take mostly sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, peanut butter, and mealworms. They peck a hole in the shell, and then chip out and eat tiny bits of seed while expanding the hole. Chickadees are found in deciduous and mixed forests, open woods, parks, willow thickets, cottonwood groves, and disturbed areas.
Other Names Similar Species Conservation Status
  • Carbonero de gorra oscura (Spanish)
  • Mésange à tête noire (French)
  • Carolina Chickadees are the most similar to Black-capped Chickadees, but their ranges overlap in only a narrow zone across the north-central United States. They have less white wing-feather edging and longer songs than Black-capped Chickadees.
  • Mountain Chickadees may be seen with Black-capped Chickadees in the West, but they have a sharp white stripe over the eye.
  • Boreal Chickadees have a brown cap and back, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees have a rich brown back.
  • White-breasted Nuthatch has a thicker shape, a shorter tail and longer beak, and a white throat.
  • Spring male Blackpoll Warblers have the black cap and bib and white cheeks, but their back and sides are conspicuously streaked and their legs are yellow.
Black-capped Chickadee populations are secure. Forest clearing for agriculture or development can increase the amount of forest edge, which can improve habitat for chickadees, and this species also benefits from people who keep bird feeders. As with many birds that nest in tree cavities, chickadees can suffer if land managers cut too many dead trees out of forests.
Video Sources Used To Construct This Page:

 

  • Patuxent Wildlife Research Center longevity records:

  • Smith, Susan M. 1993. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039

All photos © 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.
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