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Black-capped Chickadee

Poecile atricapillus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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.

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Chickadees
Chickadees
Typical Voice
  • 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.

  • Behavior

    Black-capped Chickadees seldom remain at feeders except to grab a seed to eat elsewhere. They are acrobatic and associate in flocks—the sudden activity when a flock arrives is distinctive. They often fly across roads and open areas one at a time with a bouncy flight.

  • Habitat

    Chickadees may be found in any habitat that has trees or woody shrubs, from forests and woodlots to residential neighborhoods and parks, and sometimes weedy fields and cattail marshes. They frequently nest in birch or alder trees.

Range Map Help

Black-capped Chickadee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Black cap and throat
    • White cheek and nape
    • Buff or orangish sides (can be gray in worn birds)
    • Brownish gray back
    • © Jason Means, Dunbar, West Virginia, September 2008
  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Brownish gray back
    • Wings dark with white edging
    • White cheek and nape
    • Long, gray tail
    • © Mike Powers, Chemung Co, New York, February 2008
  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Black cap and throat
    • Buff or orangish sides (can be gray in worn birds)
    • Long, gray tail
    • Very short black bill
    • © Bill Corwin, Washington, January 2009
  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Wings dark with white edging
    • © Laura Erickson, Ithaca, New York, March 2005
  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Black cap and throat
    • White cheek and nape
    • Buff or orangish sides
    • Wings dark with white edging
    • © Jerry Acton
  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Round body, large head, long tail
    • © Bill Shiess
  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Round body, large head, long tail
    • © Maria Corcacas
  •  

    Black-capped Chickadee

     
    • Wings and tail dark gray with white edging
    • © birdmandea, Steilacoom, Washington, January 2009
  • Nestlings

    Black-capped Chickadee

    Nestlings
    • Nests in small tree cavities and nest boxes
    • © Charles Eldermire, Ithaca, New York, June 2008

Similar Species

  •  

    Carolina Chickadee

     
    • Usually can be separated by range (Black-capped in north U.S., Carolina in south), but overlap in a narrow belt from Nebraska E to New Jersey
    • Usually grayer overall, with less orangish on sides
    • Often grayer nape
    • Less white edging on wings
    • Song and calls different
    • © Donna Wilson, December 2008
  •  

    Mountain Chickadee

     
    • Distinctive white eyebrow (may be faint in some plumages)
    • Very gray overall, no buff on sides
    • Very little white edging on wings
    • © katnor1, Oregon, January 2009
  •  

    Chestnut-backed Chickadee

     
    • Ranges overlap along Pacific coast and northern Rocky Mountains
    • Deep chestnut back and flanks
    • © BirdieMama, California, October 2007
  •  

    Boreal Chickadee

     
    • Ranges overlap in northern U.S. and Canada
    • Brown cap
    • Gray nape (white cheek not as prominent)
    • Browner back, less white edging on wings
    • Calls different
    • © Laura Erickson, Minnesota, January 2009
  •  

    Boreal Chickadee

     
    • Brown cap
    • Gray nape (white cheek not as prominent)
    • Browner back, less white edging on wings
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, Manitoba, Canada, June 2007
  •  

    White-breasted Nuthatch

     
    • Very different shape than chickadees, with short tail and long bill
    • No black throat
    • Back bluish-gray
    • © Mike E. Worthington, Georgia, January 2009

Similar Species

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.

Backyard Tips

Feeders and nest boxes are often used by chickadees; consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Black-capped Chickadees are especially attracted to a box when it is filled with sawdust or wood shavings. To keep wrens out of boxes you want chickadees to nest in, place nest boxes at least 60 feet into a wooded area. The compass orientation of the entrance hole probably does not matter at all, but chickadees do seem to prefer an unobstructed path to the entrance hole, without branches and leaves in the way. Setting a nest box farther back from other trees and branches can help deter squirrels and mice from jumping to the box and eating chickadee eggs and nestlings. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Chickadees are one of the easiest birds to attract to feeders, for suet, sunflower, and peanuts. They don’t mind using tiny hanging feeders that swing in the wind, and also readily visit window feeders. Planting willow, alder, and birch trees provides future nesting habitat for chickadees.

Find This Bird

Within their range, Black-capped chickadees are easily seen at many feeding stations, and in virtually any area with trees. They are often heard before they’re seen. They’re frequently attracted to investigate birders making pishing sounds. Once you’ve learned this bird’s calls, listen for them and then look for the flocks they travel in. Warblers and other migrating songbirds associate with chickadees, and by looking through the chickadees you’re more likely to find these other species as well.

Get Involved

Keep track of the Black-capped Chickadees at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Look for Black-capped Chickadee nests and contribute valuable data about them through NestWatch

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Birds Change Their Minds—Literally. A Birdscope article about how chickadees and other species replace brain neurons every fall.

Looking for the Perfect Fixer-Upper: Chickadees prefer nest tubes filled with wood shavings more than nest boxes (Birdscope)

The View from Sapsucker Woods A surprising insight about chickadees at feeders by Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick

Distinguishing Chickadees: Refresh your chickadee identification skills.

Tricky Bird IDs: Black-capped and Carolina chickadees

Why sing the wrong song? The puzzle of bilingual chickadees. Story in Living Bird magazine.

The Case of the Bizarre Beaks: Story in Living Bird Magazine.

Black and White and UV All Over: Story in BirdScope.

Risk Management for Chickadees, Living Bird, Autumn 2013

All About Birds Blog, Warming Temperatures Are Pushing Two Chickadee Species—and Their Hybrids—Northward, March 2014.

All About Birds blog, Research Surprise: Many Birds Exposed to Eye Disease, but Only Finches Get Sick, August 25, 2014.

All About Birds blog, Here’s What to Feed Your Summer Bird Feeder Visitors, July 11, 2014.