Black-capped Chickadee

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Black-capped Chickadee
Poecile atricapillus

The Black-capped Chickadee is a very quick and busy little bird. Weighing less than half and ounce, less than 6" long, with a wingspan of about 7". This little bird is packed with character. Males are larger than females. Most days you will see them flying between the different piles of food on the trail, darting down, than they quickly fly up to a branch on a nearby tree, break the seed open on the perch and then dart back down for another. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to catch one cracking a shell on a near perch in front of the cams. They also are entertaining when deerfeeder is out and about on the trail and the little scamps are diving into his buckets of feed, before he can even put them out.
They have a black cap, oversized rounded head, tiny body, little black bib & cap, white cheeks, soft gray back, darker wings & black tail. They are white on the lower half, with a long narrow tail and a short dark bill. Their eyes are black very small and hard to see even in the close up cam. Juveniles look like adults. The oldest known wild chickadee lived to be 12 years and 5 months old.
Chickadees are found in deciduous and mixed forests, open woods, parks, willow thickets, cottonwood groves, woody shrubs, weedy fields, cattail marshes, and most back yards that have a bird feeder. They are seen on the trail year round and do not migrate. They are permanent residents, but sometimes move south within their range in winter. On cold winter nights, Chickadees conserve energy by lowering their body temperature by 10 to 15 degrees F. While this may seem counterproductive, “nocturnal hypothermia” probably reduces energy expenditure by as much as ten percent.


Black-capped Chickadee's have thirteen distinct notes. The most familiar call is the familiar chick-a-dee-dee-dee which gave this bird its name. This simple-sounding call is astonishingly complex. It has been observed to consist of up to four distinct notes which can be arranged in different patterns to communicate information about threats from predators and coordination of group movement. A study of the call shows that the number of dees indicates the level of threat from nearby predators. It was found that alarm calls triggered by small, dangerous raptors had a shorter interval between chick and dee and tended to have extra dees, usually averaging four instead of two. In one case, a warning call about a pygmy owl, a prime threat to chickadees, contained 23 dees!
There are a number of other calls and sounds that these Chickadees make, such as a gargle noise usually used by males to indicate a threat of attacking another male, often when feeding. This call is also used in sexual contexts. This noise is among the most complex of the calls, containing 2 to 9 of 14 distinct notes in one population that was studied. In late summer, some young birds will sing only a single note.


In winter Black-capped Chickadees eat about half seeds, berries, and other plant matter, and half animal food such as insects, spiders, suet, and sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses. In spring, summer, and fall, insects, spiders, and other animal food make up 80-90 percent of their diet. At feeders they take mostly sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, peanut butter, and mealworms.
They peck a hole in the shell, and then chip out and eat tiny bits of seed while expanding the hole. They seldom perch within several feet of one another while taking food or eating. They will make short flights to catch insects in the air. The Black-Capped Chickadee hides seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.


There is a dominance hierarchy within flocks. Some birds are “winter floaters” that don’t belong to a single flock—these individuals may have a different rank within each flock they spend time in. Winter flocks with chickadees serving as the nucleus contain mated chickadee pairs and non-breeders, but generally not the offspring of the adult pairs within that flock.
Other species that associate with chickadee flocks include nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, creepers, warblers and vireos. Because small songbirds migrating through an unfamiliar area often associate with chickadee flocks, watching and listening for chickadee flocks during spring and fall can often alert birders to the presence of interesting migrants. Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.

Nests & Nesting

Even when temperatures are far below zero, chickadees virtually always sleep in their own individual cavities. In rotten wood, they can excavate nesting and roosting holes entirely on their own. We watched one pair do this last summer in a 2' stump just outside the yard. I noticed them because I couldn't figure out what they were up to flying down there then coming up to perch on an oak branch to wipe their beaks, in doing so it would look like something would fly around. It took a while to figure out they were bringing the stuff from inside the nest to the oak instead of leaving a sawdust pile outside the stump. But generally the nest sites are 4-23 feet off the ground, typically 4-10 feet high. The cavities they excavate are generally 5" deep x 2 3/8" wide.
They prefer a side entrance, and if the stub or branch is slanted, the entrance is often placed on the lower surface, providing protection from the elements. They will sometimes nest in a smaller woodpeckers old nest & blue bird nesting boxes. Very rarely they may nest in a hole in the ground. They seldom win a competition with other cavity-nesting birds over a nest site. They may use old woodpecker holes or bluebird nestboxes. If disturbed they may lunge and hiss in defense of the nest. During breeding season, they can be very inconspicuous. They do not perch on top of a nestbox or near a nest site it has claimed. They removing wood chips and dump them away from the site to avoid attracting predators.
Chickadees breed the following spring after they hatch. Females choose their mate, a pair bonds for life. They brood once a year. If a nest fails a chickadee is unlikely to return to that spot to try again, but they may attempt another nesting elsewhere. Chickadees begin exploring potential nest sites in March.
Both the male and female are involved in excavation, which can take 7-10 days. The nest chamber averages 21 cm deep. Nest construction can take from 3-4 days up to 2 weeks. The female builds the cup shaped nest, which is fairly complex, starting with coarse material like moss, pine needles, or strips of bark as a foundation. Then lining it with softer material such as animal fur,wool,hair, downy plant fibers, cattails, spider webs, insect cocoons or feathers. The cup is about 1" deep. Egg laying begings in June. Usually 1-2 days after nest construction. A female will lay one egg per day, in early morning. 6-8 eggs total, as many as 13 have been recorded. The eggs are tiny. width about 1 centimeter.

When the female leaves the nest, she may cover the eggs with nesting material. Incubation is done by the female and lasts 12-13 days. It usually begins the day before the female lays the last egg, so that all eggs will hatch within 24 hours of each other. Incubation usually occurs in 20-25 minute time periods, interrupted by 7-8 minutes for feeding.

Upon hatching the chicks eyes are closed and they have six small patches of mouse-gray downy feathers on the back and head. After hatching the male brings food so the female can keep the hatchlings warm. They are fed several times an hour during daylight. By Day 12-13, both parents provide equal amounts of food, and remove fecal sacs. The female broods at least part time up to day 12.

Day 4 - dark spots are visible where feathers will appear.
Day 7 - eyes begin to open.
Day 12 - eyes are fully open, insulating feather coat exists.
Day 16 - Fledging.

After day 12 the young are prone to premature fledge if the nest is disturbed. The parents feed the young for 3-4 weeks after fledging. Then the family group breaks up, and juveniles disperse from the area where they were born.

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