A striking and easy to identify bird, chickadees have a reputation for being chatty busybodies. They are frequent visitors to feeders and backyards and are one of the most studied and well-recognized wild songbirds in North America. 

Physical Description

True to their names, these chickadees have a black cap on their head with a black bib (throat) and white cheeks. They have a gray back and wings with buffy undersides that fade to white on the chest.

Size

Small, stocky birds with short, rounded wings, black-capped chickadees are about 4.5 to 6 inches long (12 to 15 centimeters) with a wingspan of 6 to 8 inches (15 to 21 centimeters). 

Native Habitat

Chickadees like open wood and deciduous forests. They thrive in backyards, cottonwood groves and willow thickets. In harsh winter weather, small flocks of black-capped chickadees are sometimes seen in dense pine forests.

Black-capped chickadees can be found across North America, ranging from Alaska through eastern Canada, and spreading southward into the northern parts of the United States. The southern border of their range is slowly creeping north as the climate warms. 

Communication

Black-capped chickadees produce a dazzling array of calls. Adults can make as many as 16 different calls, all with different meanings. The call for which they are named in English — "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" — is far more complex than it sounds, with information encoded in each note. Generally the more “dees” that ring out, the greater the threat a predator poses. They also sing a highly recognizable "fee-bee" song. They sing more in the spring than in any other time of year.

Other species of songbirds, especially migrants moving through an area, tend to tag along with chickadee flocks. They listen for the chickadee feeding calls to find food and for chickadee alarm calls to keep them safe.

Food/Eating Habits

Chickadees love bird feeders, especially ones with sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts. However, more than half of their food throughout the year consists of insects, spiders, caterpillars, larvae and insect eggs. They have even been known to scavenge on dead deer, skunks and fish. They also eat vegetation, including berries and seeds.

Chickadees hide huge amounts of food for the winter months—in the fall they can store up to 1,000 seeds a day or 80,000 seeds a season, jamming them anywhere they can fit. To keep track of all these seeds, they can replace old neurons with new ones, overwriting old memories with new ones. A chickadee’s hippocampus—the part of its brain responsible for spatial memory—is larger in chickadees that live in places with colder, harsher weather. The hippocampus actually shrinks in the spring when food is easily available and grows again when it’s time to survive the winter.

Social Structure

Chickadees are social creatures that like to live in flocks of up to 12 birds. Males and females have separate social structures, and the highest-ranking females usually mate with the highest-ranking males. Higher-ranking chickadees tend to have bigger territories, bulkier bodies, higher singing rates and greater reproductive success. Subordinate chickadees tend to forage in the outermost parts of trees, making them most vulnerable to predators, and are braver about approaching or exploring new situations. 

Conservation Efforts

Like many birds, black-capped chickadees are vulnerable to predation, habitat loss and ecosystem degradation. However, the proliferation of backyard feeders and nest boxes have helped bolster chickadee populations. 

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