Black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus)

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Black-capped chickadee
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The black-capped chickadee is a distinctive species with a small body, over-sized head and conspicuous markings.
  • The calls of the black-capped chickadee have been described as being somewhat complex and language-like.
  • The black-capped chickadee eats a variety of invertebrates, seeds and berries, and is known to store food in caches for up to a month.
  • As an adaptation to changes in social flocks and the environment, the black-capped chickadee allows brain cells containing old information to die in the autumn, replacing them with new ones.
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Black-capped chickadee fact file

Black-capped chickadee description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyParidae
GenusParus (1)

The black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus) is a distinctive species, in terms of both its shape and colour. This species appears rather spherical as a result of its somewhat over-sized round head, short neck and small body (2).

As its name suggests, the black-capped chickadee sports a conspicuous black cap and bib (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7), which is white around the edges except for the top edge (3). The nape is also black (3), whereas the back is grey to greenish-grey (2) (3) (4) (5) and the long, narrow tail (2) (4) (5) and rounded wings are dark greyish (2) (3) (4).

The cheeks and underside of the black-capped chickadee are white (2) (3) (4) (5), while the flanks and rump have a buffy tinge (2) (3) (4) (6). The black-capped chickadee has dark brown eyes (3) (4), a short, brownish-black to black bill (2) (3) (4), and bluish-grey legs (3) (4).

Male and female black-capped chickadees are alike in appearance (3) (4), although males tend to have slightly longer wings and tail and are often a bit heavier than the females (4). Juveniles of this species have plumage similar to that of the adult birds (3) (4), but with a slightly browner crown and bib, and duller, browner upperparts (3). There are several recognised subspecies of black-capped chickadee (3) (4), all of which differ slightly in range and colouration (3) (4) (7).

Among the calls of the black-capped chickadee, the most frequent is a chattering ‘chick-a-dee-dee-dee(3) (6) (7). The varied calls of this species have been described as being complex and language-like (2), with the black-capped chickadee using an increasing number of sharp, scolding ‘dee(3) or ‘see’ notes to signify a higher threat level (2). Upon hearing this alarm call, black-capped chickadees freeze in position until the all clear ‘chickadee-dee’ call is uttered (2). The song of this species is a softer, clear, whistled ‘fee-bee(3) (4) (6) (7), typically performed by the male but occasionally also by the female (2).

Synonyms
Poecile atricapillus.
Size
Length: 12 - 15 cm (2)
Wingspan: 16 - 21 cm (2)
Weight
9 - 14 g (2) (3)
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Black-capped chickadee biology

A rather curious and acrobatic species (2), the black-capped chickadee can often be seen flying across roads and open areas with a distinctive undulating flight powered by rapid wing beats (2) (4).

The black-capped chickadee is a monogamous species (3) (4) (5), forming a lifelong pair-bond (3) (5). The courtship display involves soft calls, wing-shivering and the male feeding the female (3), and once the bond has formed, the pair establishes and defends a territory (5). The breeding season of the black-capped chickadee begins in late March and continues through to early July (3), with each pair usually only producing one brood (2) (3) unless the first one is lost (4). This species typically nests in a cavity excavated by both the male and female (2) (4) (5), although abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes are also used (2) (5). Only the female black-capped chickadee builds the nest (3) (4), which is cup-shaped (2) and formed using a variety of materials including moss, conifer needles, grass, bark strips, feathers and animal fur (2) (3) (4).

The black-capped chickadee typically lays a clutch of between 6 and 8 eggs (3), although as few as 1 and as many as 13 have been recorded (2). The timing of egg laying differs depending on location, with individuals in Illinois generally laying between mid-April and the beginning of June, and those from Massachusetts laying between May and July (4). Black-capped chickadee eggs are white and marked with fine reddish-brown spots (2) (4). The female incubates the eggs (3) (4) for a period of 11 to 14 days (3), during which time the male provides her with food (3) (4). The chicks are fed by both adult birds (3), and leave the nest at between 12 and 16 days old (2) (3) (4). Once they have left the nest, young black-capped chickadees remain with the adults for a further three or four weeks, and are capable of breeding in their first year (3) (4). The oldest recorded black-capped chickadee was 12 years and 5 months old (2) (3).

The black-capped chickadee is an omnivorous species (5), feeding on a variety of invertebrates such as small insects, spiders, snails, slugs and centipedes (3) (5), as well as vegetable matter including seeds, berries (2) (3) (4) (5) and even sugar maple (Acer saccharum) sap (3). The proportion of animal to vegetable matter taken by this species varies depending on the season. In the winter, the black-capped chickadee’s diet is composed of 50 percent invertebrates and 50 percent vegetable matter, whereas during the breeding season the amount of animal matter consumed increases to around 80 or 90 percent (2) (4).

The black-capped chickadee forages for food in thickets and the low branches of trees (3) (7), catching prey items by hovering, probing, hawking or gleaning (3) (4). Interestingly, this species stores seeds and other food items (2) (3) in various caches for up to a month (3), and rarely eats food where it finds it (4). The black-capped chickadee tends to pick one seed up at a time, and carry it off to another location where the bird holds the seed with its feet and hammers it open using its bill (5).

The black-capped chickadee is a largely resident species (2) (3), although it is known to move southwards in years when the seed crop is poor or fails (3). At such times, flocks can be highly visible during the daytime (3), and in the winter the black-capped chickadee frequently forms the basis of larger, mixed-species flocks (2) (3) (4) with nuthatches, woodpeckers, warblers and other birds (2) (4).

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Black-capped chickadee range

The black-capped chickadee is found across much of Canada and northern USA (2) (4) (8), including Alaska (2). In Canada, this species’ range encompasses parts of the Yukon, Quebec and the Maritimes (4). In the USA, the black-capped chickadee occurs from Oregon, Washington (2) and extreme north-western California in the west (4), through states including Kansas, Illinois and Wisconsin across to New Hampshire, Maine and northern South Carolina (2) (4).

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Black-capped chickadee habitat

The black-capped chickadee occurs in many different habitat types containing trees or woody shrubs (2), such as deciduous or mixed open woodlands (2) (3) (4) (7), parks, willow thickets (2) (4) and even residential neighbourhoods (2) (3) (4) (7). This species tends to be found towards the edges of wooded habitat (4), and shows a preference for areas containing birch (Betula species) and alder (Alnus species) (2) (3) (4).

In the south-eastern part of its range, the black-capped chickadee is found largely in montane habitat, breeding at elevations above 1,200 metres in North Carolina and Tennessee, and between 2,285 and 3,200 metres in New Mexico (3).

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Black-capped chickadee status

The black-capped chickadee is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Black-capped chickadee threats

The black-capped chickadee is not currently considered to be a threatened species. However, excessive forest management which results in the removal of too many dead trees can negatively affect this species by reducing the availability of suitable natural nesting sites (2) (4).

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Black-capped chickadee conservation

There are currently no known conservation measures in place specifically for the black-capped chickadee, as this species is widespread (3) (8) and has an extremely large and increasing population (8).

The black-capped chickadee does appear to benefit from the presence of bird feeders (2), as well as from forest clearing for agriculture, as this practice increases the amount of forest edge habitat available for this species (2) (4).

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Find out more

Find out more about the black-capped chickadee:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Deciduous forest
Forest consisting mainly of deciduous trees, which shed their leaves at the end of the growing season.
Gleaning
The catching of prey by plucking it from or within foliage.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Invertebrates
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Montane
Of mountains, or growing in mountains.
Nape
The back of the neck.
Omnivorous
Feeding on both plants and animals.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2014)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. All About Birds - Black-capped chickadee (January, 2014)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/black-capped_chickadee/id
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2007) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 12: Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
    http://www.hbw.com/
  4. Smith, S.M. (2010) Black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039/articles/introduction
  5. Day, L. (2007) Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  6. Kaufman, K. (2005) Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  7. Dunn, J.L. and Alderfer, J.K. (2006) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Books, Washington, D.C.
  8. BirdLife International - Black-capped chickadee (January, 2014)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=7019
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Image credit

Black-capped chickadee  
Black-capped chickadee

© Jim Zipp / www.ardea.com

Ardea wildlife pets environment
59 Tranquil Vale
London
SE3 0BS
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 208 318 1401
ardea@ardea.co.uk
http://www.ardea.com

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