Black-capped Chickadees always make me smile. These cheeky little songbirds of backyard North America are so bold and comical, with such a cheery little call, they make our long winter days seem less dark and dull. Whatever other birds may fly south, I can count on the Chickadee to stay near and keep me company through the winter.
The Black-capped Chickadee is a familiar sight to hikers and cross-country skiers, as he loves to follow us along the trails all through the seasons, little black-capped head tilted on one side and bright black eyes shining, as if to say, “Now, what on earth are you doing that for?”
Quick Chickadee Facts
- Scientific name – Parus atricapillus or Poecile atricapillus
- Appearance – 12-14 cm (about 4-5 inches) in length, grey above shading into buff-coloured sides, with a distinctive black cap and bib set off by white cheeks.
- Range – Alaska, Canada, and the northern half of the United States
- Habitat – Mixed forests, deciduous shade trees, hedgerows, at the edge of woodland trails and in shrubs at the edge of fields and meadows.
- Chickadees nest in a stump, tree, or fence post close to the ground, and generally have two broods of young a year.
- Diet – Widely varied: insects, seeds, and berries.
- The Black-capped Chickadee is the official State Bird of Maine and Massachusetts, USA, and the official Provincial Bird of New Brunswick, Canada.
Bold and Cheeky, Black-Capped Chickadees are the Comic Acrobat of North American Song Birds
In the wild, the Black-capped Chickadee eats a broad variety of insects, seeds, and berries. At your backyard bird feeder, Chickadees will appreciate a meal of black oil sunflower seeds and suet. Like many of the other songbirds, they can manage quite well with an open tray feeder (if the squirrels don’t clean it out first, that is!) but can extract seeds quite efficiently from almost any kind of bird feeder you set out for them.
It’s fun to watch them carry a sunflower seed to a nearby branch, then bash the seed against the wood to get its hull off – and even more fun to train a Chickadee to come to your hand. All it takes is a bit of patience, and a hand full of seeds.
The Black-capped Chickadee is easily identified and not at all shy – in fact, it can be tame to the point of fearlessness – which makes it a great bird for kids to start with when they’re learning to enjoy backyard birdwatching.
A small common songbird of North America, the Chickadee is 12-14 cm (about 4-5 inches) in length, but about half of that length is its tail. It gives the impression of being a grey-ish bird with a distinctive black cap and bib, and bright white cheeks, but if you look closely you’ll see that the back has a brownish tinge to the grey colouring, and the sides are buff-coloured.
The Chickadee’s movements are often quick and sudden as it hops from branch to branch in a shrub or low-limbed tree, watching the activity of humans with its head cocked inquisitively to one side, or busily looks for seeds and insects to eat.
Range and Habitat
Black-capped Chickadees are found all across North America, from the southern part of the Yukon and Northwest Territories and the southern half of Alaska at the northern extent of its range, down to the northern half of the United States to the south.
Sometimes they’ll wander outside this range, both to the north and to the south, but this is where they’re common year-round residents.
Chickadees are birds of the deciduous and mixed (deciduous/coniferous) woods, but they are quite adaptable and are often found in open woods, orchards, parks, and suburbs all through the northern half of the USA and much of Canada.
Like many Canadians, I grew up on the Hinterland Who’s Who television spots – a series of mini-documentaries from Environment Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Federation on various aspects of the natural world. This one is about our cheeky little friend, the Black-capped Chickadee.
As kids, we used to call a male Chickadee “the Cheeseburger Bird.” Why? Because… it’s a welcome sign that winter is turning the corner to spring when the cheerful little Black-capped Chickadee changes his song from chickadee-dee-dee to cheeseburger! cheeseburger!
In much of the Chickadee’s range, you’ll hear this change of song in February and March. Exactly when the male Chickadee starts to sing his mating song will depend on where in the birds’ range you live, of course – this sure sign of spring will come along later, as the further to the north you go, the later the mating season will start.
Learn More about the Black-Capped Chickadee
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Black-capped Chickadee (Canada)
- Learn how to identify Black-capped Chickadee, its life history, cool facts, sounds and calls, and watch videos. A bird almost universally considered “cute” thanks to its oversized round head, tiny body, and curiosity about everything, including humans…
- Hinterland Who’s Who – Black-capped Chickadee (Canada)
- Environment Canada & the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s “Hinterland Who’s Who” online factsheet on the Black-capped Chickadee, with 30-second and 60-second audio clips and North America breeding and wintering range map…
- USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter (US)
- United States Geological Survey (USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center information on Birds, Species Maps, Song clips & photographs
Photo credits: Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) perching on a hand and Birdfeeder.