Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Also known as: black-capped warbler, Eurasian blackcap
Synonyms: Motacilla atricapilla
French: Fauvette à tête noire
GenusSylvia (1)
SizeLength: 14 cm (2)
Weight8.5 - 31 g (2)

The blackcap is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A common and widespread warbler, the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is named for the male’s distinctive black cap, which contrasts with the otherwise greyish plumage. The upperparts of the male have a brownish tinge, and the underparts are slightly paler. The female blackcap is distinguished by a chestnut cap and browner body than the male, while the juvenile resembles the female, but has a less contrasting cap and more buffy plumage (2) (3) (4). The blackcap has a relatively long, square-ended tail, long, pointed wings, and a greyish beak and legs (2).

The blackcap is divided into five subspecies, but the variations between these are slight and the boundaries between the different subspecies are not always clear (2). On some Atlantic islands, a melanistic (dark) morph also sometimes occurs, in which the male has a blackish head, throat and chest, dark brownish upperparts and reddish-brown underparts, while the female is dark brown (2).

The rich, fluting song of the blackcap has earned it the name ‘northern nightingale’ (5). Usually given from inside the cover of a bush or tree, the song consists of melodious, varied, warbling phrases, usually starting with a chattering, harsher segment and finishing with a characteristic melancholy, fluted ending. The blackcap’s calls include a harsh ‘tak’, which may be repeated rapidly in alarm and is often combined with a rasping ‘dzaaak’ (2) (3) (4).

The blackcap has a widespread distribution, breeding across Europe, Asia and North Africa, from western Europe to south-western Siberia, and south to the Mediterranean, Turkey and south-western Russia. It also occurs on islands in the Atlantic Ocean, including the Azores, Cape Verde Islands, Canary Islands and Madeira (2) (6).

This species is a partial migrant, with birds from the north and east of the range generally moving southwards to spend the winter in western and southern Europe and in Africa. In contrast, those on the Atlantic and Mediterranean islands usually remain in the breeding areas year-round (2). Blackcaps in parts of western Europe and the Mediterranean region are partially migratory, with the exact direction in which they travel having a genetic basis (2) (7). In recent decades, an increasing number have been moving north and west to spend the winter in the United Kingdom (2) (5).

During the breeding season, the blackcap is typically found in a variety of woodland and forest habitats. It also occurs in orchards and fruit-tree plantations, as well as parks and gardens with plenty of trees and shrubs (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).

In winter, the blackcap is more usually associated with areas rich in berries and other fruits, including olive groves, gardens and palm plantations. In Africa, it may be found in a range of habitats, from lowland savanna to mangroves, riverside woodland, and montane scrub and forest (2) (6).

The diet of the blackcap varies seasonally, comprising mainly insects during the breeding season and fruit during the rest of the year. Blackcaps eat a wide variety of insects and other invertebrates, including mayflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths, beetles, spiders, woodlice, snails and earthworms. Prey may be taken from leaves or twigs, or is sometimes caught in the air (2). A range of different fruits and berries are also eaten, with olives being a particularly important food source in the Mediterranean region in winter. Smaller fruits are swallowed whole, but the blackcap may peck at the pulp of larger fruits such as figs and cultivated olives. The blackcap may also take pollen, nectar and some insects outside of the breeding season, and frequently visits bird tables in winter (2).

The provision of food by humans is believed to be driving a fascinating change in the migratory behaviour of blackcaps from continental Europe. Instead of travelling to southern Spain, increasing numbers of blackcaps are overwintering in the United Kingdom, perhaps taking advantage of milder winters and food supplied on bird tables. This switch in migratory behaviour appears to be creating a distinct population, and is an intriguing example of rapid evolutionary change (8) (9) (10). Blackcaps using this new route have developed rounder wings, more suitable for the shorter journey, and longer, narrower beaks, which may be better adapted to eating food from bird tables rather than fruit from trees (8).

The breeding season of the blackcap runs from mid-April to August in most of its range, although there may be two main seasons in the Cape Verde Islands, from August to November and January to March (2). As part of courtship, the male blackcap builds a number of simple ‘cock nests’, only one of which, if any, is then used for breeding. Both the male and female blackcap complete the building of the chosen nest, which consists of a cup of grasses, twigs and roots, lined with grass and hair. The nest is usually built in a shrub, bush or small tree, or in dense vegetation, such as a stand of ferns (2). Between 2 and 7 eggs are laid, and are incubated by both adults for 10 to 16 days. The young blackcaps leave the nest at around 10 to 15 days old, and are cared for by both the adults for a further 2 to 3 weeks (2). The blackcap has been recorded living to an age of 11 years in the wild (2).

With its large population and widespread distribution, the blackcap is not currently considered at risk of extinction (6). Its population is believed to be increasing and its range has extended northwards (2) (6), mainly due to afforestation and to increased shrubby growth associated with a decrease in cattle grazing (2).

Blackcaps also appear to be surviving better through the winter, perhaps as a result of extended cultivation periods in the Mediterranean, where the blackcap is one of the most common species wintering in shrubland and olive groves (2). This species has also adapted well to using bird feeders in urban and suburban areas (2).

The blackcap is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention), which aims to undertake actions to conserve migratory species throughout their range (11). However, there are currently no known conservation measures specifically targeting this common warbler.

Find out more about the blackcap and its conservation:

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:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2006) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 11: Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  4. Barthel, P.H. and Dougalis, P. (2008) New Holland European Bird Guide. New Holland Publishers, London.
  5. RSPB - Blackcap (March, 2011)
  6. BirdLife International (March, 2011)
  7. Helbig, A.J. (1991) Inheritance of migratory direction in a bird species: a cross-breeding experiment with SE- and SW-migrating blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 28: 9-12.
  8. Rolshausen, G., Segelbacher, G., Hobson, K.A. and Schaefer, H.M. (2009) Contemporary evolution of reproductive isolation and phenotypic divergence in sympatry along a migratory divide. Current Biology, 19: 2097-2101.
  9. Berthold, P., Helbig, A.J., Mohr, G. and Querner, U. (1992) Rapid microevolution of migratory behaviour in a wild bird species. Nature, 360: 668-670.
  10. Bearhop, S., Fiedler, W., Furness, R.W., Votier, S.C., Waldron, S., Newton, J., Bowen, G.J., Berthold, P. and Farnsworth, K. (2005) Assortative mating as a mechanism for rapid evolution of a migratory divide. Science, 310: 502-504.
  11. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (March, 2011)