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While seated on a patio near a lovely local park in southern Maine, I was greeted by an astonishingly cute bird with a little hat atop its head. It was a little chickadee hopping around collecting crumbs that had fallen around the table. I headed into the park to find many small birds, exactly like it, bouncing along tree limbs and jumping out of the shrubbery with berries in their mouths. They were so entertaining and lively that I spent an hour spectating quietly!
If you’ve seen these adorable birds in your yard, a nearby forest, or a park, you know about the magic and captivating nature of the Black-capped Chickadee. Chickadees are easy to acknowledge as cute and move on from, but I encourage you to learn more about this fascinating bird. Their many quirks and behaviors will hopefully launch you into the exciting world of their scientific family, Paridae.
The Black-capped Chickadee belongs to an order of dactyly perching birds, Passeriformes. The name of this order is derived from the Latin ‘passer’, which means sparrow, and ‘formis,’ meaning shaped. This order encompasses nearly sixty percent of all birds and is divided into two suborders, Passeri and Tyranni. Approximately 4,000 songbirds belong to Passeri, including the Black-capped Chickadee, while 1,000 tropical birds are grouped in the Tyranni suborder.
A member of the Paridae family, chickadees, are grouped with other tiny birds such as tits and titmice. These small, round, stocky birds are easily spotted in the woods of Africa and the northern hemisphere.
The Black-capped Chickadee’s genus, Poecile, includes 14 other species of tits ranging from North America, Europe, and Asia:
- White-browed Tit
- Sombre Tit
- Grey-headed Chickadee
- Chestnut-backed Chickadee
- Boreal Chickadee
- Carolina Chickadee
- Mexican Chickadee
- Mountain Chickadee
- Père David’s Tit
- Black-bibbed Tit
- Marsh Tit
- Sichuan Tit
- Caspian Tit
- Willow Tit
How to Identify a Black-capped Chickadee
Due to their physical similarities, the Black-capped Chickadee was once lumped together with the Willow Tit. Other tit species easy to confuse the Black-capped Chickadee with are the Mountain Chickadee, Marsh Tit, and the Carolina Chickadee.
To tell the similar species apart, note the following differences:
- Willow Tit: This bird has lighter gray edges along its wingtips and a much smaller black patch on its chin than the Black-capped Chickadee.
- Mountain Chickadee: The Mountain Chickadee has a more upturned bill with a white stripe over its eye. This bird will be seen in evergreen forests, while the Black-capped Chickadee can be found in deciduous trees and woodlots.
- Marsh Tit: The Marsh Tit has a minor black patch under its bill and no white streaking in the wings. It has a grayish-brown back as opposed to the Black-capped Chickadee, which has a large black patch on its chin and a pure gray back with dark gray accents along the wing tips and tail feathers.
- Carolina Chickadee: There is minimal range overlap between the two species. The Black-capped Chickadee has white coloration on the fringes of its wings.
Size and Shape
The Black-capped Chickadee and other tits have the most adorable shapes of any bird. They have distinctive tiny and round bodies with short necks and large heads. The Black-capped Chickadees bill is short and looks about the size of a black oil sunflower seed. Adults are four to six inches and have a six to eight-inch wingspan.
The Black-capped Chickadee’s namesake black cap is extremely obvious. It extends to meet a broad white streak at their eye, and a bib resumes at the corner of their bill, covering the chin and stopping at their buffy breast and underparts. Their wings are soft gray, with white and darker gray streaking along the edges.
Typically in flocks of nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, and brown creepers, the Black-capped Chickadee is often described as acrobatic in their movements and cheery in their chirps. They perch themselves sideways and upsidedown along small limbs, like small black and white puff balls bouncing along delicate twigs and branches.
They have a distinguishing “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call that earned the species its name. This call is used when the bird is alarmed or suspects a nearby threat is present. Another call to alert other birds is a high-pitched “see” that tells the chickadees to remain in place until the signature “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” release is heard.
The Black-capped Chickadee has an interesting social hierarchy in which they establish dominance. The individual’s level of aggression ranks this dominance, and flocks arrange themselves from most aggressive to least aggressive. All birds in the community are subordinate to the most aggressive bird, while the least aggressive bird is subordinate to all birds in the flock. Poor little bird doesn’t have a mean bone in its body.
The birds who rank most aggressive get the best nesting sites and food. This means they usually survive longer. Mating pairs are also established using this ranking order; for example, dominant males will mate with dominant females.
Where Does a Black-capped Chickadee Live: Habitat
The non-migratory Black-capped Chickadee can be found in flocks throughout deciduous woodlands, willow thickets, cottonwood groves, parks, woodlots, and open woods across the northern United States southern Canada.
Their year-round range extends from New England to the West Coast. It is not uncommon for their western content to include New Mexico and the eastern range to include northern areas of Georgia.
In some rare instances called “irruptions,” large flocks of Black-capped Chickadees will fly long distances. In the fall, they’ll move south, and in the spring, north. These movements are driven by a lack of food or habitat loss.
Popular nesting sites include snags of alder and birch trees. A snag is a dead or dying tree still standing and usually missing many smaller top branches.
Black-capped Chickadee Diet and Feeding
The Black-capped Chickadee is omnivorous, sustaining itself on a diet of seeds, invertebrates, insects, and berries. Roughly seventy percent of their diet comprises animals, and thirty percent is composed of plant material. Their full-time feeding schedule begins at dawn and ends at dusk.
The diversity of their diet means there is rarely a shortage of food within their range. Whether it’s dead deer, spiders, caterpillars, honeysuckle, or hemlock seeds, the Black-capped Chickadee isn’t a picky eater. During the breeding season, caterpillars are this bird’s fuel of choice. When winter rolls around, and foraging takes more effort, the Black-capped Chickadee has a few tricks up its wing to conserve energy. This bird will decrease its body temperature to 50 degrees below its daytime temperature during the night. It is essential to replenish backyard bird feeders during the winter when those little birds are out there turning down the thermostat on their bodies.
They will stop by backyard feeders to snatch a sunflower seed and move elsewhere to eat it or stash it later in a bark crevice. Food hoarding during the summer and fall months, when food is easy to come by, means the bird creates an essential cache of food for scarce days. Fascinatingly enough, the Black-capped Chickadee can remember where it stashed food for at least twenty-eight days.
Black-capped Chickadee Breeding
The Black-capped Chickadee is a monogamous bird that uses the hierarchy mentioned above to find suitable mates within its flock. The species breeds once a year. During February and March, courtship behavior can be observed. You’ll hear flocks loudly vocalizing and see the small birds chasing each other around trees. As pairs are established and the spring season draws closer, the pairs will disperse from the flock to find a suitable nesting site. The female leads this search while the male follows closely behind, defending her chosen area from other chickadees. Males also use this following behavior to show interest in a female chickadee.
Once a suitable territory is found, the mating pair works together to dig a nesting cavity in soft or rotting wood. These nests are located about three to nine feet from the ground.
Black-capped Chickadee Nesting
Usually, there are no defining characteristics to distinguish males from females, but as a female prepares to lay her eggs, she develops a scratchy voice. Once the pair is comfortably moved in, the female begins to line the nest with plants, moss, wood shavings, fibers, feathers, and animal hair. The male chickadee brings food to the female regularly during this process. Over the next week, the female lays one egg a day until the average clutch size of six to eight eggs is reached.
Once hatched, both parents feed the nestlings anywhere from six to fourteen times an hour. On top of the around-the-clock feedings, mom and dad keep the nest tidy by removing droppings. Talk about a full-time job!
This demanding schedule leaves the adults exhausted and sometimes barely hanging on. Luckily, the end of their duties draws closer around day sixteen. At this time, the chicks are ready to leave the nest and begin acquiring life skills. The young will practice flying and foraging, but mom and dad still provide food for two more weeks while the chicks learn these vital skills.
The sheer fatigue of this demanding responsibility causes so much stress and depletion that the adults begin to molt or lose their feathers. This is the easiest way to tell the young from the fully grown. Once chicks take off for good, they join nearby flocks to begin living their lives and putting their skills to the test.
Black-capped Chickadee Eggs
Eggs are small and white with dark spots. The female incubates the eggs for twelve to fourteen days in thirty-minute intervals, which allows her freedom to do some foraging. During the night, females incubate continuously. Although the female does some foraging herself, the male focuses on providing the female with food as she takes on the task of incubation.
Black-capped Chickadees are altricial upon birth, which means they are bald, blind, and helpless, relying on their parents entirely for survival.
Black-capped Chickadee Population
Good news! The current population of Black-capped Chickadees is healthy. While a slight decline was seen in the western population from 1966 to 2019, the growing eastern population accounted for the loss. Partners in Flight estimates that the total breeding population of Black-capped Chickadees is around forty-three million. They are rated low conversation concern at a seven out of twenty per the Continental Concern Score.
Is Black-capped Chickadee Endangered?
The Black-capped Chickadee is not endangered. Deforestation can prove to be a harmful practice for many animals, but for some birds, including Black-capped Chickadees, it creates forest edge habitats. There is such thing as too much deforestation, leading to a scarcity of nesting sites, but for now, the practice is aiding species that need semi-cleared areas with snags of trees. Homeowners who place nesting boxes and can leave dead or dying trees in place are doing their part to provide safe and suitable habitats for these loveable birds.
Black-capped Chickadee Habits
These little gymnasts enjoy clinging to branches upside down and sideways, seemingly defying gravity using their dactylic toes.
Communication using body movements is expected. Subordinate birds will hold their feathers close to their body as they face away from dominant individuals as a sign that they do not want any trouble. Aggressive symptoms include mouth opening, feather-ruffling, and hopping between two birds.
A fascinating behavior unique to Black-capped Chickadees is the replacement of brain neurons. The bird lets brain neurons with old or useless information die each fall. These neurons are replaced with new ones that can retain further information related to changes in their environments or social flocks. This behavior serves mainly to aid a chickadee’s memory regarding food caching.
The Black-capped Chickadee is a helpful backyard bird and does more than its share to improve the environment around them. For starters, they do not typically reuse nesting sites. This creates habitats for animals that rely on birds to do the grunt work of digging these sites.
Many species of plants rely on animals for seed dispersal. This bird’s diet means they contribute to the distribution of seeds, including those of hemlock trees, berries, and other plants.
The most impactful effect chickadees have on humans is their consumption of insects. They are natural pest exterminators in your backyard, in orchards, and across forests and farmlands.
Black-capped Chickadee Predators
Predators of adult Black-capped Chickadees include other birds such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Shrikes, Eastern Screech Owls, and Saw-Whet Owls. Nest predators, including raccoons, squirrels, opossums, and weasels, are typically mammalian. The House wren has also sabotaged chickadee eggs to claim their nesting site.
Chickadees may not have a size advantage, but they do have numbers. When a predator is near, the Black-capped Chickadee exclaims a quick and high-pitched “zeet.” This alarm lets others know trouble is immediate and to gather close. A flock will harass an intruder with the hope of scaring it off. Other chickadee tactics include creating distractions. These displays have the chickadee spreading tail feathers and raising its wings up and down. Simultaneously they lean in toward the predator.
Black-capped Chickadee Lifespan
While this bird is widespread, comprehensive data on the average lifespan has not been collected. The oldest living Black-capped Chickadee was about twelve years old. However, the average lifespan is around two and a half years.
Answer: Black-capped Chickadees have curious personalities and are relatively comfortable around humans. As a reminder, you should always treat wild animals with respect and proceed with caution when encroaching on their territory.
Answer: Hanging a bird feeder in your yard is the number one way to gain chickadee visitors. They prefer black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and fatty suet cakes. Installing nesting boxes in undisturbed yard areas may also attract a nesting pair.
Answer: With a breeding population of 43 million, Black-capped Chickadees are not hard to come across when in the northern United States or southern Canada. In the United States, they can be found year-round from New England towards the west coast.
Answer: These little birds sure are bright! They have a repertoire of 13 vocalizations and can remember the locations of cached food for months. The yearly regeneration of brain neurons keeps them in tune with social and environmental changes.
Audubon. (2019, March 21). Black-capped Chickadee. Retrieved from Audubon website: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/black-capped-chickadee
Black-Capped Chickadee | National Wildlife Federation. (2022). Retrieved from National Wildlife Federation website: https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Birds/Black-Capped-Chickadee
Canadian Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). Black-capped Chickadee. Retrieved from www.hww.ca website: https://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/chickadee.html
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (n.d.). Black-capped Chickadee. Retrieved from www.allaboutbirds.org website: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/overview
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