Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
Prepared by Paul Nicholson, November 2022.
The Black-capped Chickadee is one of the most popular birds in Canada. Although other chickadee species can be seen across the Country, The Black-capped Chickadee is the only one that has been recorded in Middlesex County in decades. All photos by Paul Nicholson
In the bird world, the Black-capped Chickadee is high on the list of many Canadians’ favourites.
Some readers will recall that in 2016 Canadian Geographic magazine led on an initiative to establish a national bird for Canada. The Black-capped Chickadee was among the five finalists. This species is the official provincial bird of New Brunswick. Earlier this year, our Bird Friendly Calgary friends led on a city-wide vote to establish an official bird for their city, and after more than 36,000 votes were cast, the Black-capped Chickadee emerged triumphant.
This cute and common bird is well-named. The Chickadee is about 13 cm in length. It has a black cap and chin, a grey back and tail, white cheeks, and white underparts. There may be some buffy plumage on the bird’s flanks. It’s easily identifiable and it is a year-round resident in London and across Southwestern Ontario.
Black-capped Chickadees do not typically migrate. Like Northern Cardinals, we can enjoy them year-round.
Chickadees can be found in various habitats including woodlands, scrubby fields, and backyards.
These birds are opportunistic feeders. They will eat insects when this food source is available, but they are well-known as seed- and suet-eaters through the winter.
Behaviourally, Chickadees are as interesting as any bird. Through the late fall, they engage in caching food. They hide hundreds or thousands of seeds in the little crevices in tree bark or similar spots. They then retrieve the food as needed through the winter when other food sources are restricted due to heavy snows. (To read more about caching, you can read a post on this website from last year.) Another interesting behaviour of Chickadees is the eagerness of some to take bird seed from a person’s hand. This is a bold species. This is also demonstrated when a flock of Chickadees combine forces to “mob” a larger bird such as a Crow that might be perceived as a threat.
Black-capped Chickadees will often feed on seeds held in the palm of your hand. A great place to try this in London is at the trailhead of the Tamarack Trail near the first parking lot at Fanshawe Conservation Area.
Because Chickadees are generally bold, other small birds will join them in small mixed flocks. There is, after all, some safety in numbers. Through the spring and summer, it might be warblers that tag along. In the fall and winter, you would be more likely to see nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and kinglets with Chickadees.
The Black-capped Chickadee has a surprising number of vocalizations. The one for which they are named is chickadee-dee-dee. This is in fact an alarm call. The number of dee syllables at the end reflects the perceived threat level. Other calls of the Chickadee include the above-noted mobbing call, a contact call, a “gargling call”, and a simple three-note call sometimes thought of as “hey, sweetie” or “cheese burger.”
Listen to the Black-capped Chickadee’s classic call below:
Black-capped Chickadees are cavity nesters. Most often it is the female that selects the nest site. Both the male and female then prepare it by excavating and then creating a cup-shaped nest within the cavity space.
Help make London more Black-capped Chickadee friendly:
Keep pet cats indoors or leashed while outside to prevent them from predating on wild birds.
If you maintain bird feeders, ensure they are washed regularly to prevent disease.
Retrofit your home windows using bird-friendly materials to prevent bird-window collisions.
Support the protection of natural habitats that Chickadees need for food, shelter and breeding.
Grow native plants in your yard.
Avoid use of pesticides.
Reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible.
Participate in citizen science initiatives such as recording bird sightings in eBird.
This Chickadee is excavating a nesting cavity in an old, rotting trunk.