Black-capped chickadees have short plump bodies, a solid black cap and bib, and white cheeks. They are a small bird weighing only 11 g and measuring 13.3 cm in length. Their wingspans measure 20.3 cm in flight. Their backs and wings are dark greenish-gray, with some streaks of white and black adorning the wing feathers. Their bellies are white with a light-reddish color on the flanks. They have small, pointed black beaks and dark legs. Male and female chickadees are identical.
Young black-capped chickadees resemble adults, but have brighter colors with more reddish coloration on the flanks. (Sibley, 2000)
Black-capped chickadees live only in North America. They can be found from Alaska through the southern half of Canada and as far south as the northern half of the United States. (Sibley, 2000; Smith, 1993)
Black-capped chickadees prefer forests, woods and parks, cottonwood groves, and willow thickets. They are most commonly seen near edges of wooded areas. They are a frequent visitor to backyard bird feeders. Black-capped chickadees nest in cavities, usually in dead trees or stumps, and are attracted to habitats with suitable nesting locations. During the winter, small flocks of black-capped chickadees can be found in dense pine forests. (Sibley, 2000; Smith, 1993)
Black-capped chickadees form pairs of one male and one female. They stay with each other to mate and raise chicks, but they may find different partners from year to year. Pairs are formed during the fall migration. Males show interest in females by chasing them in flight. Males will select females of equal rank so that the highest ranking male will mate with the highest ranking female. (Smith, 1993)
Both males and females participate in excavating a nest in a dead tree or rotting stump. Black-capped chickadees prefer a nesting tree if the inner wood is soft, but the outer wood is sturdy. Pairs will often excavate several nest cavities before the female selects one to begin building a nest in. The cavity is lined with moss, feathers, wood shavings, and animal hair. Nest cavities are rarely re-used in later years. The breeding season begins in early spring, and the eggs are laid between April and early July. The female begins laying eggs 1 to 2 days after completing the nest, with a typical clutch consisting of 6 to 8 eggs. Females are the only incubators and this incubation period lasts 12 to 13 days. While the female stays in the nest and warms the eggs, the male brings food for her. The young are altricial at birth, meaning they have only a few feathers and their eyes are closed. They depend on their parents for food and warmth. The chicks are very small and only weigh 1 g when they hatch. The chicks are fed and kept warm until they fledge (able to fly and leave the nest) at 14 to 18 days old. The parents and fledgelings then leave the nest site, but travel in a group and the parents continue to feed the young until they reach independence at 5 to 6 weeks of age. (Smith, 1993)
In black-capped chickadees, both males and females participate in excavating a cavity nest. They will excavate several cavities and the female will select one to construct a nest. The female builds the nest alone and fills the cavity with moss, feathers, wood chips and animal fur. During this time, the male will protect the surrounding territory by distracting any predators and leading them away from the nest. The female performs all egg incubation and the male will feed her. Once the chicks have hatched, the male continues his feeding duties and will provide food for the female and the chicks. Black-capped chickadees are born altricial and require significant parental investments to feed and brood the young until they can see, thermoregulate, and feed on their own. The female will leave the nest after the young develop feathers, and she will participate in gathering food for the growing chicks. After chicks have fledged, the family will leave the nest site and travel together until the young reach independence. Both the male and female participate in feeding the young until independence. (Smith, 1993)
There has been little formal study regarding the lifespan of black-capped chickadees. It is estimated that they live an average of 2.5 years with the oldest on record being 12.5 years old. (Smith, 1993)
Black-capped chickadees hop on trees (occasionally on the ground), rather than "walking." These birds are very active during the day, and can often be seen foraging upside-down. Black-capped chickadees form monogamous pairs which usually stay together for several years. Black-capped chickadees pair up together and are solitary and territorial during the breeding season. During the non-breeding season, chickadees are more social and join mixed-species flocks that may contain nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, brown creepers, warblers, and vireos.
Black-capped chickadees perform short-distance migrations, but remain in the same general region throughout the year. Dominance hierarchies exist in this species, and older birds are generally more dominant. Males are dominant to females, as well. Dominant individuals have access to the best mates, food resources, and nesting sites.
Pairs have set territories during the breeding season which range from 1.5 to 5.3 ha. (Smith, 1993)
Black-capped chickadees are well known for their distinctive calls which sound like "chick-a-dee-dee-dee." This is not the only sound they make, however, as adults can produce 16 different calls. Young chickadees can produce 3 types of calls which are used for begging for food or if they are in distress. Males use a two-note "fee-bee" call to establish territory and attract mates. Chickadees also make an angry "gargle" call when intruders enter their territory.
Black-capped chickadees also communicate through body postures or movements. These body postures are known to convey aggression or appeasement. Aggressive behaviors include ruffling the body or crown feathers, hopping and pivoting behavior between two individuals, or an open-mouthed advance by one chickadee on another. Subordinate individuals will often try to appease an approaching dominant individual by holding their feathers tightly to their bodies while leaning and facing away from the dominant bird. Male and female black-capped chickadees perform a distraction display where a bird will flare it's tail feathers and wings to lure predators away from the nest. (Smith, 1993)
Black-capped chickadees feed on both animals and plants (the overall consumption has been measured to be about 70% animal and 30% plant). Animal foods consist mainly of insects and spiders. Caterpillars are preferred in the breeding season. Chickadees have been observed eating dead deer, skunks and fish. Plant materials eaten by chickadees include honeysuckle and blackberries, seeds from hemlocks, and wax-covered berries such as those of poison ivy and bayberry. They are often seed at backyard bird feeders, eating seed and suet. Black-capped chickadees obtain water from streams, puddles, bird baths, or by eating snow.
Black-capped chickadees give sharp "zeet" alarm calls when they see a predator. Predators are often mobbed by groups of chickadees in order to scare it away. Predators near nests often evoke a distraction display, where the chickadee lands near the predator, leans towards it with the tail feathers fully spread, and raises and lowers its wings. (Smith, 1993)
Adult black-capped chickadees are preyed on primarily by small hawks, owls, and shrikes, including sharp-shinned hawks, northern shrikes, eastern screech owls, and northern saw-whet owls. Eggs and nestlings are preyed on by mammalian nest predators such as raccoons, squirrels (genera Sciurus and Tamiasciurus), opossums, and weasels. House wrens sometimes destroy eggs in order to take over the nesting cavity. (Smith, 1993)
As a cavity nesting species that excavates new nests each season, black-capped chickadees create habitat for other local species that rely on cavities. Many species that nest in cavities do not have the ability to create cavities themselves and are only able to breed where others have abandoned a nest. Black-capped chickadees occasionally eat seeds and berries and likely contribute to local seed distribution. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Smith, 1993)
There are no negative effects of black-capped chickadees on humans.
Black-capped chickadees help control populations of insect species that may be harmful to agriculture and forestry. Many bird watchers enjoy black-capped chickadees as they are comical, active little birds that often visit backyard feeders. (Smith, 1993)
While the clearing of forests for agriculture has led to more forest edge, which is favorable to black-capped chickadees, too much cutting can cause lack of natural nest sites. Due to feeders and nestboxes, however, black-capped chickadee populations are stable. Black-capped chickadees perform short-distance migrations and therefore are protected by the United States Migratory Bird Act. Black-capped chickadees are abundant throughout Michigan. (Smith, 1993)
Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, George Hammond (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.
Jennifer Roof (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Smith, Susan M. 1991. The Black-capped Chickadee: Behavioral Ecology and Natural History. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY.
Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc..
Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Chanticleer Press, Inc..
Smith, S. 1993. "Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)" (On-line). Birds of North America Online. Accessed July 09, 2008 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039.