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The Black-capped Chickadee’s Natural History

Identification and Description                                  

Black-capped Chickadee with its characteristic features that makes it easy to identify

The Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is a passerine bird belonging to the family Paridae. It is a charismatic species that approaches humans without fear, which makes it much easier to see than other birds. It is a very small bird with a total body length of around 12 to 15 cm and a wingspan of 16 to 21 cm. It is mostly identified by its distinctive black cap and throat with white colored cheeks in between. Its body plumage is mostly white in the undersides and buffy at the flanks, a gray back and tail, and wing feathers are mostly gray with a white edging.

Male, female and juvenile chickadees look similar in appearance; therefore it is not possible to tell them apart just by observation in the field.

Their simple song and the characteristic call “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, by which this species get its name, can also be a useful way of identifying this species in the field.

Range and Distribution

The black-capped chickadee has a widespread distribution throughout North America. Its breeding and winter range is the same throughout the year and it extends from the Northern part of the United States, through Eastern and Western Canada and all the way up to Southern Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska. There haven’t been any significant historical changes in distribution of Black-capped Chickadees.

Habitat and Migration Habits                   

Black-capped Chickadees spend their days moving from branch to branch foraging for food.

The Black-capped Chickadee makes use of many different habitats, which include deciduous and mixed deciduous forests, coniferous stands and riparian woodlands, and can easily be observed in suburban regions. Being a non-migratory species, they are found in forested areas where food is abundant year round. Habitats for nesting and foraging, which may differ as the Chickadees’ requirements for each activity differ, are not always located close to each other, thus some short distance migration can occur. The Black-capped Chickadee nests in tree cavities, which they may excavate themselves or find naturally or abandoned. They often nest in tree trunks at lower heights and make use of live limbs rather than dead ones. Chickadees’ main use of their habitat is for foraging and reproducing, thus their habitat has to meet the requirements for food availability and has to have suitable nesting sites and building materials.

Nutritional Habits                                           

Black-capped chickadees are common visitors to bird feeders.

Black-capped Chickadees are omnivorous and the majority of their diet includes insects, berries and seeds.  Being a non-migratory bird, their diets vary greatly from summer to winter depending on availability of food items.  Seeds constitute the bulk of their winter diets as food becomes scarce, while in the summer they forage on newly emerging caterpillars and insects along with a myriad of different items. Also, during the winter, they flock to feeding stations that  provide sunflower seeds, which have a high fat content. It’s interesting to note that they regularly store food, usually before winter, while there is enough availability of nourishment and they recover it in time of need. They generally have a memorization period of 28 days for remembering the location of their food stores.   Some studies suggest that they tend to only recognize locations of food store if they are the ones who had stored it. They prefer to store these food item s under tree barks or lichen patches. The majority of a Chickadee’s day is spent hopping along twigs or clinging to branches, inspecting the tree trunks and feeding.   These varied food habits are the key to the success of the Black-capped Chickadees.

Mating, Breeding, and Nesting Habits

Pair formations within flocks of Black-Capped Chickadees peaks during the fall, the same time as the flocks themselves are forming. The pair formations are based on the rank of individual males and females (i.e. the highest ranking male will mate with the highest ranking female). Egg laying time depends on multiple environmental factors such as local food supply, as well as individual factors, such as the physical health of the female. Black-capped Chickadees are cavity nesters and are most likely to nest in birch and aspen trees. Both sexes aid in the excavation of the nest cavity but the female is the nest builder. The nests are built using coarse material such as mosses, with thinner linings of rabbit fur or deer hair. After the eggs have been laid, the female is the sole incubator, which lasts approximately 13 days. Young male birds have a faster growth rate than the young females. Once ready, the juveniles leave the nest all at once.

Behaviour                              

A Black-capped chickadee bathing in icy waters. Being non-migratory, Chickadee’s are adapted to endure the cold winters.

Black-capped Chickadees are commonly seen both single and in flock, but appearing in flock or as a solitary bird greatly depends on the time of the year. Solitary birds can be observed during breeding season (i.e. from March to August) when Chickadees are in individual monogamous pairs formed last fall in flocks. The pair relationship normally continues until one of the pair dies. For non-breeding season, Chickadees normally form flocks. Staying in a flock can protect Chickadees from aggression to some extent and also bring other advantages such as more efficient food gathering. Thus, flocking is important for them to survive through winter, as most Chickadees are non-migratory. During the summer, birds in breeding pairs like to stay in one flock and continue their pair relationship.

Interestingly, within one flock, Chickadees behave (i.e. feeding and mating) according to a “social status rank”. One rule is that the male Chickadee in a pair is dominant over the female. Although it seems unfair for females, actually males are protecting females from aggression, food shortage and sometimes predators by sending off alarming calls. Research shows that pair-bonds greatly help paired females to have a higher feeding rate than non-paired females and this is essential for them to survive through winter.

Useful Links

  1. http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/black-capped_chickadee
  2. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/lifehistory
  3. http://www.birdjam.com/birdsong.php?id=12
  4. http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039/articles/introduction

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References

Baker M.C. & Stone E.R. (1989) The Effect of Conspecific On Food Caching By Black-Capped  Chickadees. The Condor, 91, 886-890.

B.C. Conservation Data Centre. 2012. Species Summary: Poecile atricapillus. B.C. Minist. of Environment. Available at: http://a100.gov.bc.ca/pub/eswp/ (accessed Oct 15, 2012).

Boon, A. 2002. Correlates of parental and offspring quality in the black-capped chickadee. – B.Sc. Honours Thesis, Department of Biology, Queen’s University.

Barash DP. 1974. An Advantage of Winter Flocking in the Black-Capped Chickadee, Parus Atricapillus. Ecology 55(3):674-676.  DOI: 10.2307/1935161

Duvall AJ. 1945. Distribution and Taxonomy of the Black-Capped Chickadees of North America. The Auk 62(1):49-69.  DOI: 10.2307/4079960

Foote, Jennifer R., Daniel J. Mennill, Laurene M. Ratcliffe and Susan M. Smith. 2010. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Available at: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039 (accessed Oct 15, 2012) DOI:10.2173/bna.39

Lemmon D, Withiam ML, Barkan CPL. 1997. Mate Protection and Winter Pair-Bonds in Black-Capped Chickadees. The Condor 99(2):424-433.  DOI: 10.2307/1369949

Mennill, Daniel J., Laurene M. Ratcliffe. 2004. Nest Cavity Orientation in Black-Capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus: Do the Acoustic Properties of Cavities Influence Sound Reception in the Nest and Extra-Pair Matings? Journal of Avian Biology, 35(6), 477-482.
DOI: 10.1111/j.0908-8857.2004.03351.x

Ramsay, S.M., Otter, K., Ratcliffe, L.M. (1999) Nest-Site Selection by Female Black-Capped Chickadees: Settlement Based on Conspecific Attraction? The Auk, 116 (3), 604-617. DOI: 10.2307/4089322

Sedgwick, J.A. and Knopf, F.L. (1990) Habitat Relationships and Nest Site Characteristics of Cavity-Nesting Birds in Cottonwood Floodplains. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 54 (1), 112-124. DOI: 10.2307/3808910

Smith, S. M. 1991. The Black-capped Chickadee: behavioral ecology and natural history. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY.

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About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

One comment on “The Black-capped Chickadee’s Natural History

  1. I thought I would share a video I took of Black-capped Chickadees excavating a nest

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