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Carolina Chickadee

Poecile carolinensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Carolina Chickadee Photo

John James Audubon named this bird while he was in South Carolina. The curious, intelligent Carolina Chickadee looks very much like a Black-capped Chickadee, with a black cap, black bib, gray wings and back, and whitish underside. Carolina and Black-capped chickadees hybridize in the area where their ranges overlap, but the two species probably diverged more than 2.5 million years ago.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
3.9–4.7 in
10–12 cm
Wingspan
5.9–7.9 in
15–20 cm
Weight
0.3–0.4 oz
8–12 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a White-breasted Nuthatch
Other Names
  • Carbonero de Carolina or Paro Enmascarado Carolinense (Spanish)
  • Mésange minime, Mésange de Caroline (French)

Cool Facts

  • Where the two species ranges come in contact, the Carolina and Black-capped chickadees occasionally hybridize. Hybrids can sing the songs of either species, or might sing something intermediate.
  • In winter, Carolina Chickadees live in flocks of two to eight birds and defend areas against other flocks. Dominant birds in these flocks establish breeding territories in the summer that were part of the winter flock's range.
  • The pair bond between a male and female Carolina Chickadee can remain intact for several years. The probability that a pair will remain together seems to vary among populations, with nearly all pairs remaining together in subsequent years in a study in Texas, but only half staying together in a study in Tennessee. If a nest attempt fails, a female may seek out a new male on a different territory.
  • Most members of a winter flock stay in the same flock all season, but some birds are “flock switchers.” Some of these belong to one flock and then switch, joining another flock permanently and exclusively for the rest of the season. Other flock switchers regularly move between flocks. These flock-switchers may have different rankings in the hierarchy of each flock.
  • The oldest known Carolina Chickadee was 10 years 11 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Carolina Chickadees may be found in deciduous and mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands, swamps, riparian areas, open woods and parks, and also in suburban and urban areas.

Food


Omnivore

In winter, the Carolina Chickadee’s diet is about half plant, half animal. The rest of the year about 80–90 percent of their diet is animal (mostly insects and spiders). Carolina Chickadees glean insects from foliage and tree bark, often hanging upside down to do so. They hold seeds and insects in their feet, wedged against the branch they’re perched on, to peck into them. They readily use bird feeders.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–10 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6 in
1.5 cm
Egg Width
0.4 in
1.1 cm
Incubation Period
12–15 days
Nestling Period
16–19 days
Egg Description
White with fine dots to small blotches of reddish brown.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except wisps of down on head, wings, and rump.
Nest Description

Both members of a pair excavate a cavity or choose a cavity or nest box. Carolina Chickadees don’t seem to have a preference for nest boxes filled with or without sawdust. The female builds the nest base with moss and sometimes strips of bark. Then she adds a thick lining of hair and/or plant fibers.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Carolina Chickadees excavate or find an unused cavity, usually 2-25 feet up in a tree. When a territory is near a forest edge, half of all cavities used face the nearby clearing.

Carolina Chickadee Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Carolina Chickadee Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Carolina Chickadees associate in flocks during winter. Each flock member has a rank; once spring arrives, the highest ranking individuals will nest within the flock’s territory; lower ranking birds must travel farther to successfully claim a territory and many don’t nest that season. Throughout the year, members of pairs, families, and flocks communicate with one another constantly.

Nesting female Carolina Chickadees sleep in the nest cavity while males sleep in a nearby sheltered branch in a tree, vine, or shrub. The rest of the year, birds may sometimes sleep in sheltered branches; usually they sleep in cavities, some which they excavated, others which may be natural or excavated by woodpeckers. Carolina Chickadees sleep individually, but from night to night different members of a flock may sleep in the same cavity. They compete with Downy Woodpeckers, Brown Creepers, and Tufted Titmice for these cavities.

Carolina Chickadees actively defend an individual space, keeping at least 2.2 feet, and sometimes at least 5 feet, between individuals; when two are closer than that, the dominant bird may make gargle calls. At feeders, each bird typically takes a seed and carries it to a branch somewhat isolated from other chickadees to eat.

During migration and winter, other species associate with Carolina Chickadees, which are found with other species about 50 percent of the time. Tufted Titmice, which are dominant over them, are the most common flock associates. Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned kinglets, Red-breasted, White-breasted and Brown-headed nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Downy and Hairy woodpeckers tend to gravitate to these flocks, which are led by the Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, or both.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Carolina Chickadees are common to abundant across their range, and their populations appear stable, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 12 million, with 100% living in the U.S. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and they are not on the 2012 Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

Carolina Chickadee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident

Backyard Tips

Carolina Chickadees visit feeders for sunflower seeds, peanut chips, and suet. Make sure any peanuts you provide stay dry so no mold can form on them.

Sometimes Carolina Chickadees nest in nest tubes or nest boxes. They do not seem to care one way or the other whether the boxes or tubes are stuffed with sawdust or wood shavings. 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. 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.

Find This Bird

Learn Carolina Chickadee call notes in order to find them in forested areas. This bird is an especially important one for beginners within its range to learn. When you notice its calls during spring and fall migration, make sure to look through tree branches. 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. At feeders, Carolina Chickadees grab a seed and carry it off to eat on a more secluded branch.

Get Involved

Download instructions for attracting nesting chickadees and building a nest box. Report information about nesting activity to NestWatch.

Keep track of Carolina Chickadees at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

View and sort images of nesting Carolina Chickadees online with CamClickr to help scientists archive data from our NestCams

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Project FeederWatch: Tricky Bird IDs

Carolina Chickadee: Kissing cousins (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center)

Audubon at Home Birds to Help: Carolina Chickadee

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