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We’ve all heard it, that sweet song and a clear identifier that this inquisitive and confiding bird is nearby, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” In birdwatching, the term confiding means that the species or a particular bird is comfortable around humans, allowing them to approach closely. Chickadees commonly display this behavior, which is why they are loved by so many.
You may often witness these birds visit your feeders for a quick snack before flying off in a hurry. These captivating and cute little birds are some of the most fun to watch, and this guide will help you learn everything you need to know to spot them and tell them apart from each other.
Chickadees are a species of bird found in North America. They are passerine birds of the order Passeriformes and belong to the family Paridae. Paridae is composed of tits, chickadees, and titmice. This family is often referred to as “tits” in all other English-speaking countries. However, the North American species are called chickadees or titmice. The name chickadee came from their signature call that sounds like “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”
“Titmouse” was derived from the Old English word “mase,” meaning bird, and “tit,” meaning small.
There are seven different species of chickadees that are native to North America. Common in deciduous woods, cottonwood groves, open woods, and parks. These curious birds like to investigate their surroundings as they jump and flit through the treetops. They commonly mingle in mixed flocks of warblers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and vireos.
- Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
- Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)
- Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)
- Chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens)
- Gray-headed chickadee (Poecile cinctus)
- Mexican chickadee (Poecile sclateri)
- Mountain chickadee (Poecile gambeli)
1. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
Black-capped Chickadees are very frequently referred to as cute and loveable. They look like fake replicas of a bird, with their large heads, big black eyes, and perfectly round bodies. Just like the rest of the species, they are comfortable and curious about human activity and are regulars at backyard feeders. Let’s get into the specifics of their features and range.
Black-capped Chickadees have small but round bodies that are accompanied by large round heads and virtually no neck. They almost look like a little balls of dough with large round black eyes. They have short, thin bills and long tails.
Their Black-capped Chickadee’s name comes very clearly from the distinctive black cap atop their head that extends to the bottom of their eyes. They have stark white cheeks that are met by a black bib right under the beak that stops forming a clean line right at the base of the chin, like a little beard. The chest and underparts of this species are white to buffy. Their backs and wing feathers are gray.
Range & Habitat
The Black-capped Chickadee can be found in North America from Alaska and across the upper two-thirds of the United States. Look for them along the edges of wooded areas as they hang acrobatically along branches. During the winter, their preferred habitat is a coniferous forest.
2. Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)
While most other chickadees in this guide are curious and generally easy to see moving about, the Boreal Chickadee is often described as evasive. The truth is, the fact that this bird lives in the Boreal forests of Canada and Alaska means that you’d have to trek into the woods to catch a glimpse. So is it really evasive, or has it simply adapted to a more inactive lifestyle to thrive in its biome? Another reason it is referred to as evasive or reclusive is that it does not vocalize to signify its breeding territory, which makes this bird less obvious to spot.
If you ever do see a Boreal Chickadee, you’ll be able to identify its typical chickadee shape. Boreal Chickadees have rich brown caps against brownish-gray bodies. They have small black bibs, small white cheeks, gray wings, and gray tails. Their chest and underparts are white with light rusty-brown bellies and flanks.
Their “chick-a-dee” vocalization is raspier, more drawn out than the Black-capped Chickadee, and is used less frequently.
Range & Habitat
Living in the Boreal Forests of Canada and Alaska, the Boreal Chickadee stays within its range year-round. Sometimes seen in the Northernmost United States, this bird typically prefers mature balsam fir forests near a water source. In Alaska, look for the Boreal Chickadee in willow, alder, and spruce forests.
3. Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)
The Carolina Chickadee got its name in South Carolina from none other than John James Audubon.
The Carolina Chickadee is extremely easy to mistake for a Black-capped Chickadee. Keep scrolling for helpful tips on how to tell them apart in areas where their ranges overlap.
A Carolina Chickadee is small and round with a black cap, bib, and white cheeks. It has a gray back, wings, and tail with rusty brown flanks. Their underbellies are buffy to white. This bird has a quick “chick-a-dee” call that is higher pitched than other chickadees.
Range & Habitat
You’ll find the Carolina Chickadee across the southeastern United States, including Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, northern Florida, eastern Arkansas, Louisiana, northern Tennessee, and North Carolina.
The southeast has moderate temperatures most of the year, with a few cold days in the winter. Carolina Chickadees stick to the coverage offered by temperate forests near water and can also be found living in swamp forests, hardwood forests, and mixed pine forests. These birds are non-migratory and are not strangers to parks and wooded urban areas.
4. Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)
Although I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, their beautiful color is a lovely change from the gray, white, and black we normally see chickadees don.
A name like Chestnut-backed doesn’t leave you guessing for too long what this bird looks like, which is courtesy in my book! The Chestnut-backed Chickadee has the typical chickadee shape with a tiny round body, a large head, and a small, thin beak. This bird, in particular, has the shortest tail of any chickadee species.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees have a black cap and bib, with white cheeks, similar to other chickadees but with a light brown crown. Their backs are a deep chestnut color, and the flanks are gray or brown, depending on their region. Their wings and tails are light to dark gray.
The Chestnut-backed Chickadee has three subspecies that can be differentiated by their flank color.
- Poecile rufescens rufescens – Found in Alaska to northwest California. Wide rufous banded flanks.
- Poecile rufescens neglectus – Found in coastal central California. Thin rufous band on flanks.
- Poecile rufescens barlowi – Found in coastal southwestern California. Very little to no rufous color on flanks.
Range & Habitat
Chestnut-backed Chickadees are native to a very slim range in the western and pacific northwestern United States. From southwestern California to south-central Alaska, some Chestnut-backed Chickadees move to higher elevations in the warmer months.
Low-elevation coniferous forests are their preferred habitats. Throughout their range in northern California, this bird has adapted to living in the suburbs of San Francisco.
5. Gray-headed Chickadee (Poecile cinctus)
The Gray-headed Chickadee or Siberian Tit is a lesser-known chickadee that is the rarest of all the chickadees. It is very seldom seen in its North American range. If you’ve seen one, I do hope you took a picture!
The Gray-headed Chickadee has a pretty standard chickadee head featuring a dark brownish-gray cap, black bib, and white cheeks. A darker gray eye mask goes straight across this bird’s little black eyes. It has a tan or dusty brown back and flanks with black and light gray wings and tail feathers. Their underparts are more speckled with black, and their bib does not end cleanly on their chest like other chickadees. When looking at photos, it kind of looks like they just rolled out of bed.
Range & Habitat
The Gray-headed Chickadee is commonly found in the subarctic region of Scandinavia and the northern Palearctic, where it is known as the Siberian Tit. In North America, Alaska and northwestern Canada are the two most likely places to spot one.
Arctic streams near spruces and willows are likely habitats. Conifer and spruce forests and streamside thickets in otherwise empty areas are this bird’s year-round habitat.
6. Mexican Chickadee (Poecile sclateri)
The Mexican Chickadee is another bird that you will only see on the North American continent if you travel to the wooded highlands of Mexico or spend a lot of time in the Chiricahua mountain range of Arizona. It commonly associates with mixed flocks of warblers after nesting.
This small songbird has a black cap, a long black bib, white cheeks, and a small black bill. Their black cap does not extend past the eyes like the Black-capped Chickadee and instead stops in the middle of the eyes. They have gray backs and flanks, and their wingtips are a lighter gray than other chickadees.
Range & Habitat
The Mexican Chickadee is a year-round resident of western, central, and northeastern Mexico. It can sometimes be found in areas of the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona and the Animas Mountains of New Mexico. Some birds may seek lower elevations during the winter, but wooded douglas fir, spruce, and oak highlands are their preferred territory.
7. Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli)
If you’re like me and enjoy hiking through the western United States, you are probably familiar with the Mountain Chickadee. Look up at the trees above you to see dozens of little birds jumping around, collecting seeds, and vocalizing loudly.
The Mountain Chickadee has that typical black, white, and gray body, almost identical to the Black-capped Chickadee. Still, it kindly has a white stripe over its eyes, making its identification much easier.
Range & Habitat
Catch this little cutie bouncing through dry evergreen forests across the western United States and southwest Canada. They are prominently found in Oregon and northern California. Higher elevations and branches near the trunk of evergreens are their prime spots.
Difficult Distinction: Carolina Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee
These seven chickadees are grouped together specifically for their similarities, but most of the above species have clear signifiers like “chestnut-backed” or “gray-headed.” If it isn’t in their name, look at their range. There isn’t much overlap between the chickadees.
The most difficult distinction to make is between the Carolina Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee.
This may be one of the toughest distinctions to make, but thankfully their ranges do not often overlap. They overlap and hybridize in a small area from northern New Jersey to Kansas. You can use your geographic location to help narrow it down. Are you in the north or south? The Black-capped Chickadee lives in the north, while the Carolina Chickadee lives in the south.
Black-capped Chickadees display more white edging along their wing coverts, and their black bib ends in a messy line at the top of the breast. Carolina Chickadees have less white on their wing coverts, and their black bib ends in a clean line as it meets their white breast.
Chickadee Diet and Feeding
Chickadees are omnivores that enjoy foraging various seeds, fruits, and insects. Hopping along branches and flitting through the treetops is common behavior. Chickadees can catch insects midflight and hang upside down to inspect the bottom of leaves, branches, and cones to find seeds and bugs. When scouting the area for insects, the top contenders are caterpillars, spiders, beetles, ants, cicadas, and moths.
Berries make up a large portion of their winter diet as seeds and insects become less available. Commonly foraged berries are bayberries, poison ivy berries, juniper berries, blueberries, serviceberries, and holly berries.
The Extraordinary Brains of Chickadees: Food Caching
You might notice a chickadee visit your feeder and immediately fly away with a seed. This is because they have other plans in mind. During the fall, chickadees will begin to cache seeds in anticipation of the cold winter days. Cache sites can include crevices under roofing shingles, behind tree bark, and in the crotch of trees.
Chickadees can cache nearly 80,000 seeds during the fall. All of these are retrieved on cold winter days when food is scarce. Most of us can hardly remember where we put our car keys or when to pick up the kids, so how do these little birds accomplish such a monstrous task?
Chickadees are fascinating subjects to study regarding cognition and memory. Many Biologists, such as Vladimir Pravosudov, a cognitive ecologist, have taken an interest in learning what this behavior can teach us about human brains.
Pravosudov has learned that chickadee females that mate with males with an exponential memory will lay larger clutches, leading to bigger broods. His team is still working out the “why” on this one, but it’s really fascinating science surrounding such an adorable and underestimated bird.
When looking at a chickadee’s brain, evidence suggests that the hippocampus of food-caching birds is larger than that of relative birds. They rely on distal cues, such as an arrangement of nearby feeders or trees, to remember food-caching locations.
Chickadee Temperature Regulation
Much like chickadees use food caching to survive the winter. They have a few more tricks up their feathers. Chickadees have the ability to regulate their body temperature. Their normal daytime temperature is 107 degrees Fahrenheit, but maintaining this temperature means the chickadee must be able to consume ample food.
During the night, chickadees will lower their body temperature between 86 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This ensures that they do not use vital fat reserves while they are sleeping. Although they shiver through the night, chickadees use shivering as a way to generate heat. They seek out small cavities and holes that face away from gusting winds for nighttime roosting, utilizing the wood as a source of insulation.
If you want to aid chickadees’ winter survival in your area, be sure to supply them with ample fatty suets and shelled black oil sunflower seeds. When you purchase shelled seed, birds can conserve the energy they’d use removing the shell for other activities like foraging.
Chickadees typically form monogamous bonds that last for many years. Chickadees do not display many courtship behaviors but can be seen protecting their territory from other breeding males. Any courtship rituals take place in private, as does copulation. Breeding season begins with nest building in April, and the subsequent weeks are spent copulating and preparing for egg laying, which occurs in early May.
Chickadee Nesting and Eggs
Nesting sites must provide ample safety from predators, available nest building materials, and need to be located near a food source for chickadees to deem a site worthy. From mid-January to February, the hunt is on for prime real estate.
These birds work together to prepare a tree cavity by using their small beaks. They capitalize on holes that have already been formed naturally or by another species, such as woodpeckers. Chickadees will create a few different cavities before deciding whether they want to love it or list it.
Females will add the niceties of home by bringing moss, animal hair, and plant materials to line the nesting cavity. If their nest is disturbed for any reason, they will move on to reconstruct a nest in another available cavity.
After the diligent nest-building process is completed, the female can comfortably begin laying eggs. Clutch sizes range from five to eight eggs that are laid over the course of a few days, typically with one egg laid per day.
The number of eggs a female lays can vary based on the female’s age. The younger the bird, the fewer eggs she will lay. Eggs are white all over with brown speckles and splotches.
Eggs are incubated for 12 to 13 days. This is the primary responsibility of the female, but the male pitches in by feeding her around the clock. Once hatched, the male may continue to feed the mama bird. After all, she just created life!
Both parents work together to provide nestlings with ample nutrition. The nestlings fledge after only two weeks in the nest. They continue to rely on their parents for a bit longer before mom and dad decide to cut them off and make them self-sufficient.
Chickadee Population and Lifespan
Chickadee populations range from healthy to not-so-great when you consider the data seriously. Many of the conservation scores below are favorable, but the amount of species declination or habitat loss should alarm us.
To support chickadees in your area, feed them year-round and leave dead logs, trees, and limbs intact if they do not pose any safety concerns.
Black-capped Chickadee Population
Black-capped Chickadees are estimated to have a total breeding population of 43 million, according to Partners in Flight. The species is rated a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which indicates them as a species of low conservation concern.
Chickadees live short but bright lives, with the average lifespan only being about two and a half years. The longest-living banded chickadee was recorded to live for 12 years.
Boreal Chickadee Population
Boreal Chickadees have a global breeding population of 12 million and rank 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The effects of the logging industry may eventually prove detrimental to the health of this species. Old-growth forests are essential habitats.
Carolina Chickadee Population
Caroline Chickadees have a global breeding population of 13 million and are rated 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Their population has decreased by 16% since 1966. Loss of suitable nesting sites courtesy of the logging and farming industries is the most likely cause.
Chestnut-backed Chickadee Population
According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Chestnut-backed Chickadees have a global breeding population of 9.7 million. This species has seen a population decline of 56% from 1966 to 2015. This astounding number still only ranks 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not listed on North America’s Birds’ Watch List. Conservationists believe that the habitat loss is due to the removal of dead trees, logs, and limbs that provide Chestnut-backed Chickadees with nesting sites.
Gray-headed Chickadee Population
The exact population number of this species is unknown due to their rarity. Population trends have declined since the 1940s in their primary range of Scandinavia due to increased logging. Do we see a trend here?
Mexican Chickadee Population
Mexican Chickadee Populations are estimated to be 2 million, according to BirdLife International. The Mexican Chickadee is rated a species of Least Concern. While their population numbers appear to be decreasing, the decline is slow and does not worry conservationists that the species is in harm.
Mountain Chickadee Population
Mountain Chickadee populations have decreased by 39% from 1966 to 2019. The total population size is currently 7.9 million, and they are rated 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The Mountain Chickadee is listed among the Common Birds in Steep Decline. This list is for species that are declining at an uncomfortable rate but not quickly enough to be listed on North America’s Birds Watch List.
Predators of each species vary due to their geographical differences. However, there are a few common threats across the board that these cute little birds must stay wary of.
Most of the time, the chickadee is attacked from above. Powerful birds like shrikes, owls, and hawks are the top offenders. Other predators are nest raiders like snakes, raccoons, and squirrels. Adults must also be on the lookout for feral and domesticated cats.
If you provide nesting boxes for chickadees, it’s best practice to place them very far from your cat’s hunting territory or to keep Whiskers inside for a few weeks while the bird’s nest and younglings fledge.
Attracting Chickadees To Your Yard
Inviting chickadees into your backyard is one simple way to boost your mood! For me, watching these little acrobats flit around feeders, zooming back and forth from food caching sites, brought me great joy. They are playful and curious, so much so that some people even feed them by hand in the winter.
No matter why you choose to attract chickadees to your yard, I can assure you it’s 100% the right decision!
So let’s get down to what will “dee-light” them the most.
Much like every living thing, chickadees need food, water, and shelter to thrive. Give them these things, and you will have a relationship that lasts for years.
Seed, Suet, and Peanut Butter!
Chickadees aren’t terribly picky when it comes to seed, but there are a few offerings that excite them the most. Black oil sunflowers are a no-brainer because nearly every bird enjoys these. Hulled sunflower seeds and shelled peanuts are great offerings year-round, but especially in the winter. Birds need to conserve all of their energy, and eliminating the hard work of cracking a shell is a courteous gesture.
Offer seeds in hopper, tray, or tube feeders for best results. Chickadees enjoy peanut butter if you don’t mind a little dirty work. Aim for an organic brand with no additives and ensure peanut butter is fresh and safe for human consumption before offering it to birds. Slather this delicious stuff on feeders and trees to attract them. Never leave the whole jar out for their consumption.
Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches will crowd around other fatty foods like suet. Look for suets with insects and berries blended in to establish the most popular bird feeder on the block.
Incorporating berry-bearing plants into your yard, like juniper, serviceberry, blueberry, holly, and sumac, will also attract these birds and give them an additional food source during the winter.
Thirsty & Dirty, Give That Bird A Bath!
Most chickadee species are big on streamside dwellings, so incorporating a water feature or simple water source in your backyard will greatly increase your chances of attracting these busy birds.
When shopping for the right bird bath, a shallow basin is best. Just a few inches of water are ideal for chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. Add a small fountain to the basin to mimic the sound of running water. This will make it easier for birds to find. As temperatures in your area cool down, switch to a heated bird bath. If you want to make your existing bird bath suitable for smaller birds, add a substrate to the bottom to reduce the basin size.
Keep water fresh and change daily if possible. Weekly cleanings of bird baths are also a good idea to ensure mold and bacteria aren’t compromising the cleanliness of this essential water source.
Rent Free Housing, Please!
Supplying chickadees of all species with suitable and safe roosting and nesting locations is critical to their well-being. With so many species suffering from habitat loss, we live in an age where many birds have become reliant on humans because other humans have caused critical living conditions. Quiet the conundrum.
Since chickadees are cavity nesters, birdhouses with the following dimensions are ideal. The height should be 8 inches by 5.5 inches long with a 1 1/8 inch opening.
Add some wood shavings and animal hair (I use my cats!) inside the box so they can stay warm and start nest-building as soon as they move in.
As I always preach to fellow birders, if your yard allows for it and it’s safe to do, leave downed tree branches and dead trees alone so birds can also use these natural nesting sites.
Stay Curious Like A Chickadee
Chickadees show us their joyful spirits as we move through forests and parks or peer into our backyards. It’s important that we find small ways to promote their well-being in return for their never-ending entertainment.
With seven species across the North American continent, I hope you can see a variety of species throughout your birding experiences and that this guide equips you properly for any potential sightings. Happy birding, y’all!
Frequently Asked Questions
Answer: Chickadees enjoy suet, black oil sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts or hulled sunflower seeds, peanut butter, berries, and insects.
Answer: Chickadees are very comfortable with humans and keep going about their normal behavior when humans are near. While it’s fun to interact with wildlife, always give birds the space they need to thrive and limit human interaction to decrease any chances of dependency.
Answer: Male chickadees are just a little bit smaller than females.
Answer: Chickadees feed primarily in the morning from 10 o’clock to 11 o’clock in the morning.
- All About Birds
- Food Caching in the Black-Capped Chickadee
- Park Bugle’s Guide to Chickadee Winter Survival
- Sibley’s Tips for Distinguishing Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees
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