Originally published on www.critters360.com
Black-capped chickadees are a welcome guest to any bird feeding station. When one puts up a new feeder for the winter season, they are almost always the first birds to discover it. With their quick arrival and just as hasty retreat after snatching a seed to eat it in a more sheltered area, they will brighten the winter day of almost any bird watcher.
The Family Paridae
A member of the Family Paridae, the black-capped chickadee is the most common chickadee in the northeast. There are about 64 species in this family world wide, with four species in the eastern U.S. Before presenting details related specifically to this species, here is a review of the other North American members of this large family.
There may be some confusion over the Latin names. The names used here come from Alsop (2001) in the sources listed, while earlier sources use for the first part of species names Parus instead of Poecile. When any references are made to the size or song of a particular species, this is in comparison to the Black-capped Chickadee, the main focus of this article.
The Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) is mostly a bird of the southeast. It is very similar in coloration, though a bit smaller, with a shorter tail, and a more clean cut bib. The “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call is higher pitched and more rapid. A second call is usually a four syllable “fee-bee-fee-bay” instead of the two or three syllables used by the Black-capped chickadee. The range of the two birds overlaps in the Ohio Valley, and in this area, the two species may intermingle and hybridize. This complicates a positive identification of species in this area. If one sees a chickadee south of the Mason Dixon Line it is usually the Carolina chickadee.
The other eastern chickadee is the Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonica) of the far north. As its Latin name implies, it ranges up to Hudson Bay, from Newfoundland in the east to Alaska in the west. It is sometimes seen in the higher mountains of the Adirondacks, and extreme northern New England. Its color is browner with a grayer back. The call is hoarse with a more nasal quality.
The fourth member of the Paridae Family in the east is not a chickadee, but the tufted titmouse. This non-descript bird is grayish-brown above, with chestnut sides, and is white to gray underneath. While about the same size, It is distinctly different from the chickadees with a crested head similar to that of a cardinal or blue jay.
There are four varieties of the family in Western North America. The mountain chickadee (Poecile gambeli) lives in the interior mountains of British Columbia into California and the southwestern Rockies. The chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens) resides in the coastal mountains of California to Alaska, and interior portions of Washington State and British Columbia. Extending from a narrow strip of western Mexico into extreme southern Arizona is the Mexican chickadee. The range of the gray-headed chickadee (Poecile cincta) is limited to northern Alaska into the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada.
The Black-Capped Chickadee
Poecile atricapilla is the Latin name for the chickadee common in the northeastern U.S. Back in the thirties it was known as the common chickadee, sometimes called the Eastern chickadee, or black-capped titmouse. Typically it is about 4 1/2 to 5 3/4 inches long with a rather long tail. The head is a deep black, its shoulders olive gray, with buff near the tail. The throat and chin are also black, while sides of the head are white. Its wings and tail are dusky slate, and tail feathers are edged with grayish white. Underneath, it is white, tinged with buff along the sides. The iris is brown. The range is most of the northeastern U.S. to a southern range of about 40 degrees latitude.
From August to February, black-capped chickadees travel in loose flocks through a territory of roughly 12 to 20 acres. Starting in March, the flock breaks into isolated pairs for mating, with a breeding territory of about 1/2 an acre to ten acres.
Nesting and Young
Wing fluttering is a main courtship sign at breeding time. The female and male both excavate for the nest, while the female does most of the actual nest building. Generally 4 to 15 feet off the ground, it is constructed of leaves, moss & grasses, lined with small animal fur, hair, feathers, and insect cocoons. This is often built in natural cavities left by woodpeckers, or tree stumps, especially of birch. They sometimes use snags or nest boxes.
There are usually 6 to 8 eggs. These are white with reddish-brown flecks. These roughly 1/2 inch sized eggs are incubated by both sexes for 11 to 16 days. The young are totally helpless at birth, or altricial. Both parents feed the young for 14 to 18 days. Then they are driven off to fend for themselves. There is often a second brood. During the time of incubation and before the young fledge, the male aggressively defends the nest with short chases of intruders and occasional fights.
Natural Foods and Birdfeeders
Insects compose about 2/3 of the diet with larvae, chrysalids, and eggs of moths in winter as well as small seeds. Once spring comes, snout beetles or weevils are taken, as well as tent caterpillar eggs. Other foods include spiders year round, wild fruit pulp in summer, and seeds of birch, poison ivy, butternuts and bayberries. They especially like sunflower seeds. This is sure to attract them to feeders in winter, where they take suet as well.
Calls and Songs
The song of the black-capped-chickadee is a slightly nasal “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” though sometimes the first two syllables are left off. There is also a two note (occasionally three note) mournful clear whistle that descends a full tone or slightly more. Sometimes, this active bird is heard with no clear song, but just nasal twittering notes.
Chickadees travel in small groups from late summer to spring, often with titmice and nuthatches. This mixed flock is rarely more than 5 or 6 birds at my urban feeders, though there may be 10 to 20 in more suburban or wooded areas. In late summer when the flocks are first forming, they may bring attention with their activity to other less conspicuous birds on migration that may be traveling with their group temporarily. Chickadees themselves do not generally migrate, though in cold or snowy winters may shift more to the southern parts of their range.
Black capped chickadees are seldom still. They are often seen moving upside down or at strange angles on tree branches, looking for spiders or caterpillar eggs. They are not good climbers like nuthatches or woodpeckers. At feeders, they often come quickly, stay just a few seconds to furtively take a seed, then fly off to a more sheltered area to consume it or sometimes store it for later.
A tame and almost fearless bird, it is possible to train them to take seeds off a windowsill or even from the hand. When filling feeders, if they are already present, they may allow a very close approach to within a few feet. Invariably, when the feeders go up in late fall, the black-capped chickadee is the first bird to find this new source of food, and other birds follow behind within a day or two.
If you have a winter-feeding station, include sunflower seeds and suet in your mix of foods. This is sure to attract black-capped chickadees with the antics of this active and acrobatic bird sure to provide many hours of enjoyment.
Alsop, Fred J. III. Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York: DK Publishing, 2001.
Mahnken, Jan. The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X
Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor. Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.
Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980. (Eastern North America)
Proctor, Noble, PhD. Song Birds: How to Attract Them and Identify Their Songs.
Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1988.
Internet Resources (Note: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also leads to audio clips of the birds in question)
Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Black Capped Chickadee
Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Carolina Chickadee
Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Boreal Chickadee
Black-Capped Chickadee, All About Birds: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Carolina Chickadee, All About Birds: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Boreal Chickadee, All About Birds: Cornell Lab of Ornithology