Learn About Birds

Is it a Black-capped or Carolina Chickadee?

The Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) can be confusing species for eastern bird watchers to identify. The ranges of these species do not overlap much, so for many people a quick look at a range map will show which species are most likely to occur at their feeders. But for those who live in the narrow strip across the east-central United States in the zone of overlap, the chickadees pose a serious identification challenge. To complicate the identification problem the species have been known to hybridize in the overlap zone.

 

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee
© Larry McQueen

A small (avg. 5.25″ long), acrobatic bird with longer tail and (to some observers) a proportionately larger head. The lower edge of the black bib is less defined and appears uneven. Mostly white on nape of neck

In fresh plumage (usually in the autumn) the greater wing coverts and secondaries are broadly edged in white.

The white patch on the wing is more exaggerated.

The outer tail feathers are more broadly edged with white on the Black-capped Chickadee.

Sexes similar

 

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee
© Larry McQueen

The smallest (avg. 4.75″ long) North American chickadee with a proportionately smaller head and shorter tail.

The bib is smaller and well defined (there is a neat line of separation between the bib and belly). Mostly grayish on nape of neck.

The greater wing coverts are more uniformly gray and show less white.

The cinnamon-buff coloring under the wings is less developed on the Carolina Chickadee (but fresh adults in the northeast part of its range show brighter cinnamon and can be confused with Black-capped Chickadee)

Sexes similar

Narrow Zone of Overlap Between Species’ Ranges

bcchcach_map

Songs and Calls

Near the zone of overlap, birds have been known to learn each other’s vocalizations, and hybrids tend to deliver odd-sounding variations. A bird located near the zone of overlap that sings both songs, or sings “odd-sounding” songs, cannot be positively identified in the field

The Black-capped Chickadee’s call is a lower and slower chick-a-dee-dee-dee. It functions as a contact call, one that serves to keep the winter flock together when birds cannot see one another. Its song is a clear fee-bee. A loud version is given during territory skirmishes, a soft version is given during mate feeding.

The Carolina Chickadee’s call is a higher and faster chick-a-dee-dee-dee. It also has a four note song, fee-bee-fee-bay.

Bird Recordings: Black-capped Chickadee song recorded by Gregory F. Budney; Black-capped Chickadee call recorded by Robert C. Stein—LNS catalogue number 14655; Carolina Chickadee song recorded by William W. H. Gunn, Carolina Chickadee call recorded by Geoffrey A. Keller.