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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–5.9 in
12–15 cm
Wingspan
6.3–8.3 in
16–21 cm
Weight
0.3–0.5 oz
9–14 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a sparrow
Other Names
  • Carbonero de gorra oscura (Spanish)
  • Mésange à tête noire (French)

Cool Facts

  • The Black-Capped Chickadee hides seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.
  • Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.
  • Chickadee calls are complex and language-like, communicating information on identity and recognition of other flocks as well as predator alarms and contact calls. The more dee notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level.
  • Winter flocks with chickadees serving as the nucleus contain mated chickadee pairs and nonbreeders, but generally not the offspring of the adult pairs within that flock. Other species that associate with chickadee flocks include nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, creepers, warblers and vireos.
  • Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.
  • There is a dominance hierarchy within flocks. Some birds are “winter floaters” that don’t belong to a single flock—these individuals may have a different rank within each flock they spend time in.
  • Even when temperatures are far below zero, chickadees virtually always sleep in their own individual cavities. In rotten wood, they can excavate nesting and roosting holes entirely on their own.
  • Because small songbirds migrating through an unfamiliar area often associate with chickadee flocks, watching and listening for chickadee flocks during spring and fall can often alert birders to the presence of interesting migrants.
  • The oldest known wild chickadee lived to be 12 years and 5 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Chickadees are found in deciduous and mixed forests, open woods, parks, willow thickets, cottonwood groves, and disturbed areas.

Food


Insects

In winter Black-capped Chickadees eat about half seeds, berries, and other plant matter, and half animal food (insects, spiders, suet, and sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses). In spring, summer, and fall, insects, spiders, and other animal food make up 80-90 percent of their diet. At feeders they take mostly sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, peanut butter, and mealworms. They peck a hole in the shell, and then chip out and eat tiny bits of seed while expanding the hole.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–13 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6 in
1.5 cm
Egg Width
0.5 in
1.2 cm
Incubation Period
12–13 days
Nestling Period
12–16 days
Egg Description
White with fine reddish-brown dots or spots.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed, naked except for 6 small patches of mouse-gray downy feathers on the back and head.
Nest Description

Both male and female chickadees excavate a cavity in a site usually selected by the female. Once the nest chamber is hollowed out (it averages 21 cm deep) the female builds the cup-shaped nest hidden within, using moss and other coarse material for the foundation and lining it with softer material such as rabbit fur.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Nest boxes, small natural cavities, or abandoned Downy Woodpecker cavities; often excavate their own cavities. In the case of next boxes, seem to prefer to excavate wood shavings or sawdust rather than to take an empty box. Nests can be at ground level to more than 20 m high, but are usually between 1.5 and 7 m high. They tend to excavate in dead snags or rotten branches, and often select alder or birch.

Black-capped Chickadee Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Black-capped Chickadee Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Chickadees are active, acrobatic, curious, social birds that live in flocks, often associating with woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, vireos, and other small woodland species. They feed on insects and seeds, but seldom perch within several feet of one another while taking food or eating. Flocks have many calls with specific meanings, and they may contain some of the characteristics of human language.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Black-capped Chickadees are common and overall populations have been increasing since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Their western populations slightly declined between 1966 and 2010, but the loss was more than made up for by an increase in eastern populations. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 41 million, with 54 percent living in Canada and 46 percent in the U.S. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and they are not on the 2012 Watch List. Forest clearing for agriculture or development can increase the amount of forest edge, which can improve habitat for chickadees, and this species also benefits from people who keep bird feeders. As with many birds that nest in tree cavities, chickadees can suffer if land managers cut too many dead trees out of forests.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Adult chickadees don’t migrate. In years when chickadee reproduction is high, young birds sometimes move large distances, but these movements are irregular and are more accurately called “irruptions.”

Backyard Tips

Feeders and nest boxes are often used by chickadees, especially when 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.

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

You Might Also Like

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.