This is a “cute” bird because of its oversized round head atop a tiny body, and its curiosity about everything, humans included. It has a black cap and bib, its cheeks are white, and its back, wings, and tail are gray, its undersides being whitish with buffy sides, giving it a distinctive look. Little flocks of these birds are active in the winter woods, flying from tree to tree, often in the company of other birds such as nuthatches, creepers, and kinglets, sounding out their cheery chick-a-dee call. They become well known to people, due to their habit of investigating everything in their home territory, often being the first to discover bird feeders.
Black-capped chickadees live in North America in Alaska, the southern part of Canada and the northernmost two-thirds of the US. They do not migrate except when food is scarce. These birds prefer deciduous woodlands, cottonwood groves, open woods and parks, and willow thickets. Most commonly they are seen near the edges of wooded areas, and are frequent visitors to backyard feeders. They nest in holes, usually in stumps or dead trees, being attracted to habitats that have suitable locations for nests. During winter, small flocks of them can be seen in dense conifer forests.
Habits and lifestyle
Black-capped chickadees often are in small flocks, foraging at feeders or in woodlands. During the day they are very active, often foraging upside-down or gleaning, hovering, and hawking. They can be seen creeping up a tree and hopping along trunks. Their hierarchy within the flock consists of male bird above female, old above young. Dominant individuals mate with each other and can access the best resources, usually affording them better nesting success than the subordinate individuals. These birds migrate for short distances southwards when seed crops are poor or fail. At such times, flocks are highly visible in the daytime, and in winter they often form larger flocks with nuthatches, warblers, woodpeckers, and other birds, and will defend their feeding territory from other flocks. These flocks start to break up in late winter, and males become intolerant of other members. Pairs then separate from the flock in order to nest.
Diet and nutrition
Black-capped chickadees are monogamous, mates remaining together for years. Pairs will establish and defend territory, and remain on or near it for the remainder of their lives. Their display of courtship involves wing-shivering, soft calls, and the male giving food to the female. This species breeds from April to early in August. They often locate their cup-shaped nest in cavities that they excavate themselves. They also nest in woodpecker holes, nest boxes or natural cavities. Excavation takes up to one week, then the female builds the nest, usually in a few days or a couple of weeks. During this time she is fed by her mate. She lays between 6 and 8 small non-glossy eggs, varying in color. Incubation is done by the female for around 12 to 13 days, and she is fed by the male. On hatching, the chicks are brooded and fed by the female, and at 14 to 18 days old they fledge. The fledglings and parents then leave the site of the nest, but will travel in a group, the parents continuing to feed their young until they are 5 to 6 weeks old and reach independence.
The Black-capped chickadee is currently not regarded as a threatened species. However, the removal of dead trees in great numbers due to excessive forest management can have a negative impact on this species by reducing available suitable natural nesting sites.
According to the All About Birds resource, the total breeding population of the Black-capped chickadee is 41 million individuals, 54% of these living in Canada, with 46% in the U.S. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today are increasing.
As a cavity-nesting bird that excavates a new nest each season, a Black-capped chickadee creates habitat for other species in its locality that use cavities. Many cavity-nesting species cannot create cavities themselves and so are limited to breeding when others have abandoned their nest. Black-capped chickadees sometimes eat berries and seeds and are likely contributors to local seed distribution.
Fun facts for kids
- A Black-capped chickadee often hides berries and seeds under leaves or in the crevices of bark, and is able to remember these locations for as long as a month.
- Being an adaptation to changing social flocks and changes in the environment, Black-capped chickadees allow brain cells with old information to die off in the autumn, then replacing them with new brain cells.
- Chickadee calls are language-like and complex, communicating information about identity and recognition of flocks, and also contact calls and predator alarms. The more “dee” notes sounded in the call, the greater the level of threat. When they hear the notes of the alarm call “dee” or “see”, these birds freeze in position until the “chickadee-dee” call, meaning “all clear” is sounded.
- A group of chickadees is known as a "banditry" or a "dissimulation" of chickadees.
- Most of the birds that join up with chickadee flocks will respond to the chickadee alarm calls, even if their own species does not have an alarm call that is similar.