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Distinguishing Chickadees
BY Laura Kammermeier AND Steve Kelling

Please cite this Page as:
Kammermeier, L. and Kelling S.  1999. Magnetic Attraction.  Birdscope, Volume 13, Number 1:  5-7.

Refresh your chickadee indentification skills

Whether you are watching birds in Alaska or Saskatchewan, California or Colorado, Maine or Mississippi, chances are you’ve seen a chickadee lately. The chickadee is one of the most familiar and endearing birds in North America. Its diminutive size, cheerful voice, attractive coloring, and its willingness to alight on your feeders (and sometimes your hand) make it a charming winter visitor.

In case you’re wondering which chickadee you’re seeing, this article will help you sort out which species are found where and how you can tell them apart based on their appearance, geographic location, and habitat.

Chickadees are some of the most frequently observed birds in Project FeederWatch. Indeed, of the seven chickadee species that breed in North America, five are commonly reported by FeederWatchers: Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Mountain Chickadee. Two others, the Mexican Chickadee and the Siberian Tit, also breed in North America but as yet have not been reported by FeederWatchers (see "The Chickadee Challenge").

Visual Cues

All chickadees are diminutive in size, ranging from 4.5 inches (Carolina Chickadees) to 5.5 inches (Boreal Chickadees). They all have a small, sharp beak, a dark crown and bib, whitish cheeks, gray or brownish upperparts, and off-white underparts with a variable amount of buff on their flanks.

Chickadees are often described as either "black-capped" or "brown-capped." The black-capped chickadees include (you guessed it) Black-capped Chickadees, Carolina Chickadees, and Mountain Chickadees. The brown-capped chickadees include Boreal and Chestnut-backed chickadees.

"FeederWatchers’ Notebook" points out the distinguishing marks of Black-capped and Carolina chickadees, because these species are the most confusing to eastern bird watchers. Because they overlap in appearance as well as geographic distribution, these birds are often misidentified. For these two species of black-capped chickadees, clues of distinction include the bib and the inner greater coverts of the wing. To learn more about the field marks on these chickadees, see "FeederWatchers’ Notebook" below.

The other three chickadees are rather distinctive. The Mountain Chickadee is similar to the Black-capped Chickadee, but it has an obvious white line over the eye that interrupts its black cap. The Boreal Chickadee has a dull brown cap and bright orange-cinnamon flanks. Its white forecheek darkens to a pale gray. The Chestnut-backed Chickadee has a dark brown cap and chestnut-colored back and flanks. It also has white cheeks and distinctive dark gray wings.

The dark cap and dark bib with white cheeks make each of these birds easy to distinguish as chickadees. Correctly identifying the species, however, can be more challenging in some areas of North America; thus, FeederWatchers must be aware of differences in the geographic ranges and habitats of each species. For more information about these birds, see Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches, and Creepers by Simon Harrap and David Quinn.

Geographic Range

If you have any doubts as to which species of chickadee you’re seeing, find out which species is most common in your area. Figures 1 through 5 on page 6 show the ranges of the five FeederWatch chickadee species. If you live in the Southeast, chances are you see Carolina Chickadees; if you’re in Arizona, chances are you see Mountain Chickadees.

But if you live in an area where the geographic ranges of species overlap, as in the North and West and in a narrow band along the central eastern United States (see Figure 6), it might not be so easy to distinguish between chickadees. For example, Carolina and Black-capped chickadees are known to hybridize in the narrow band where their ranges overlap (Figure 6). In winter, when Black-capped Chickadees disperse southward, this area of overlap becomes wider. In this zone—which ranges from 9 to 19 miles in width and extends from New Jersey west through Kansas—it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the two species. Although the songs of these species are usually quite distinctive, even they won’t do the trick every time. Chickadees have been known to imitate each other’s songs, and hybrids can perform both repertoires. Luckily, where two species of chickadee overlap, they often occupy very different habitats.

Habitat Differences Among the Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadee
The Black-capped Chickadee is widespread and lives in a variety of habitats. blackcapped.gif (21495 bytes)It generally prefers lowlands with deciduous or mixed forests, except in the northern and Appalachian parts of its range where it prefer conifers. In the southeastern portion of its range, however, the species is primarily montane, replacing the Carolina Chickadee at elevations above 1,800 feet in winter and 3,600 feet in summer (Figure 1).

The Black-capped Chickadee has an incredible memory and can remember where it stored an item of food up to a month after caching it away.


Carolina Chickadeecarolina.gif (15466 bytes)
The Carolina Chickadee is a southeastern species that prefers deciduous woods, especially along the edges of streams or clearings. A lowland species, it is replaced by Black-capped Chickadees at higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains (Figure 2).

Like most chickadees, the Carolina escapes cold winter nights by roosting singly in small cavities in its winter territory.


Boreal Chickadeeboreal.gif (19861 bytes)
The Boreal Chickadee is one of the few passerines with a range almost totally limited to the northern boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and the northernmost parts of the contiguous United States (Figure 3). This hardy chickadee prefers dense conifer stands, particularly black spruce and balsam fir.

According to Harrap and Quinn, this chickadee also uses stored food supplies to survive the winter and is seldom seen south of its breeding range.


Chestnut-backed Chickadeechestnut.gif (16299 bytes)
The Chestnut-backed Chickadee prefers mature conifers, particularly along the coastal rainforest of the Pacific Northwest (Figure 4) and the lush valley of the Columbia River. It is typically found in edge habitat, beside streams or woodlands, for example. The species is currently expanding its range to the south and the east.

Harrap and Quinn consider the Chestnut-backed Chickadee to be one of the most common birds in the fog-bound conifer forests of the Pacific Coast.


Mountain Chickadee mountain.gif (21084 bytes)
Mountain Chickadees prefer mixed-forest habitat in the mountainous areas of the West (Figure 5). Even in winter, they are seldom found at elevations below 3,000 feet, although they will occasionally irrupt into lower elevations.

The Mountain Chickadee is the only species to be met in winter in the "silent" forests, note Harrap and Quinn, where temperatures routinely fall below freezing and the trees are often covered with a layer of impenetrable glazed snow.

Chickadees, Black-capped or black-capped?

Figure 6

overlaprange.gif (5602 bytes)
Figure 6, above, indicates where the ranges of Black-capped and Carolina chickadees meet in the East. The thick, dark line represents the zone where their ranges overlap.

If you live in the eastern United States, the most difficult chickadee identification you will encounter is that between the Black-capped Chickadee and the Carolina Chickadee. These two black-capped species look so similar that unless viewing conditions are optimal, you should depend on your geographic location to tell you which chickadee you are seeing: if you are north of the zone of overlap (see Figure 6), you’re probably seeing a Black-capped Chickadee. If you are south of the zone, you are probably seeing a Carolina Chickadee. And if you are in or near the zone of overlap, then your best bet is to call your chickadees "mixed Carolina and Black-capped chickadees" on your FeederWatch checklist. For those who are up to the challenge of distinguishing the two chickadees, see "FeederWatchers’ Notebook" for hints.

So, if you are watching birds for fun, by all means enjoy the flitting and fleeting chickadees without assigning names to them. But if you are reporting your data to Project FeederWatch or another monitoring program, pay close attention to the suite of clues that accompany your chickadee sighting: namely, the bird’s appearance, geographic location, and habitat. These clues, when used in concert, are usually enough to tell the chickadees apart.

The Chickadee Challenge

FeederWatchers have reported seeing only five of the seven chickadee species that breed in North America. The as-yet-unreported species include the Mexican Chickadee and the Siberian Tit. The Mexican Chickadee is almost entirely restricted to Mexico–it just creeps across the United States border into parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico. It prefers montane coniferous forests and is usually not found below 5,000 feet. Mexican Chickadees have a peculiar habit of crushing insects and daubing them on the outside of their nest cavities near the entrance hole, presumably to deter predators.

The Siberian Tit is an elusive species that has expanded its range into the interior of Alaska and the Yukon Territory from Siberia. In North America, it is usually associated with mature willow trees along watercourses, but is also found in spruce forests and, in winter, in alder and aspen trees. Like all members of the tit family (which includes chickadees), the Siberian Tit can drop its core temperature by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius to conserve energy during cold nights, which is how it withstands arctic temperatures. If you are lucky enough to cross paths with a Siberian Tit, you may notice that it is quite unafraid of humans.

One reason no one has reported seeing these species is because they are not common feeder species. Moreover, no FeederWatchers reside in the areas in which they occur. This demonstrates that to document and understand bird populations in North America fully, we need FeederWatchers everywhere to be counting birds.