Bird Lore: Black-capped Chickadee

Photo by LeRoy VanHee

The Black-capped Chickadee is a small bundle of constant motion, hopping from twig to twig in a variety of trees and bushes as it looks for caterpillars and other insects in summer. It frequently hangs upside down to reach the undersides of branches. You will often see this chickadee in the company of nuthatches, creepers, kinglets, and other small birds.

Criss-cross the northern half of the United States and the southern half of Canada and you will encounter the Black-capped Chickadee. It can even be found in much of Alaska. Here in Washington it is common in the western lowlands, uncommon on the Olympic Peninsula, and in Eastern Washington is found in the wetter areas of the Columbia Basin. It is a welcome bird at back yard feeding stations where, in winter, it zeroes in on seeds and suet. It will live in suburbs as long as nest sites are available. Those sites can be either tree cavities or appropriately-designed artificial nest boxes.

Unlike the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, the Black-capped avoids pure conifer forests, preferring deciduous and mixed forests and woodlots. That may be why it is not found in the high Olympics, Cascades, and other mountain ranges of Washington.

The Black-capped Chickadee pairs up in the fall and the pair will remain together as part of a winter flock. In late winter or early spring, both members of the pair will defend their nesting territory. If the pairs uses a tree cavity, both will work on excavation. Then the female builds her nest out of moss and animal hair. Typically there are six to eight eggs. As if often the case with small passerines, incubation takes approximately two weeks. The young will leave the nest about two weeks after they hatch. One brood per year is usual for this chickadee.

The song of the Black-capped Chickadee in the Puget Sound area is considered a unique dialect, distinct from the chick-a-dee-dee song otherwise heard throughout its range. You can listen to the song of our chickadees at this link.

– By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

5 Replies to “Bird Lore: Black-capped Chickadee”

  1. I am delighted to have a pair of chickadees return to my garden each year to build a nest, lay her eggs, then chirp loudly to encourage the fledglings to spread their wings and take to the sky. This year I was able to watch 5 youngsters peek outside, listen to mom and pop encouraging songs and finally fly to a nearby bush. It took an hour for the 5 cuties to take their turn and leave the nest. Recently while cleaning out the nest I found an egg that was left. Each year I photograph the nest to compare materials. Yes, it’s the wonderful creation of the same builders!
    Looking forward to the upcoming Bird Fest.


  2. Larvae live in the heads of the cattails at the Edmonds marsh. You can stand on the main viewing platform and watch black-capped chickadees and other birds digging through the cattail heads for the larvae like the chickadee in LeRoy’s photo is doing.


  3. The photo was taken April 11, 2013, which is nesting season. The material in the bird’s bill is cattail down, most likey being harvested for the soft lining of its nest.


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