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North American Chickadees (Overview)

Chickadees are a backyard favorite for many bird watchers. Their small, rounded bodies and white cheeks give them a cute and endearing appearance. Curious by nature, they are quick to check out backyard bird feeders and bird houses. There are several species found in North America, some more common than others. In this article, we will provide an overview of the North American chickadee species, share some fascinating facts about their behavior and habits, and offer tips on how to attract these charming birds to your own backyard. 

Chickadee Characteristics

There are 7 chickadee species in North America, and we will look at each one below. While they all have differences that make them unique, they also share many common chickadee characteristics. Here are some things common to all the North American chickadee species. 

  • Size: Chickadees are small, typically around 4.5 to 6 inches in length.
  • Plumage Patterns: They generally have a distinctive black cap and bib, with white cheeks. Their underparts are usually lighter, ranging from white to buff, while their wings and back are a mix of gray and white.
  • Behavior: Chickadees are known for their acrobatic foraging behavior, often hanging upside down on branches while searching for food. At the feeder they will often grab a seed, hold it between their feet and hammer the shell open with their beak.
  • Diet: They have a varied diet that is heavy in small insects and spiders, but also includes seeds, and berries, especially during the cold weather months. They are frequent visitors to bird feeders.
  • Calls: Chickadees are named for their characteristic “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call. They also have a range of other vocalizations used for communication. They are a good “look-out” species, alerting each other and other surrounding birds of potential predators nearby with their dee-dee calls.
  • Habitat: They prefer wooded areas, including forests, woodlands, and suburban gardens with trees.
  • Cavity Nesting: Chickadees are cavity nesters, often using natural cavities in trees, woodpecker holes or nesting boxes.
  • Social Behavior: They are social birds, often found in small flocks, especially outside the breeding season.
  • Non-migratory: Chickadees don’t migrate, choosing to remain in their ranges all year. Those in northern climates are hearty and able to stick out the cold winters. Some species may exhibit partial migration, moving short distances to escape extreme cold or food shortages, but this is influenced by local environmental conditions rather than regular seasonal migration.

Chickadee Species

Let’s take a quick look at each of the North American chickadees! We’ll start with the most common species and list the ones more rarely seen in the U.S. at the end.

1. Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Carolina chickadee
Carolina Chickadee | Image: Shenandoah National Park flickr

The Carolina Chickadee is commonly found in the southeastern United States. It is most often seen from New Jersey west to Kansas and south to Texas and Florida. This chickadee features a black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray back, wings, and tail, and a buffy underside. Slightly smaller and more uniformly colored than the Black-capped Chickadee, the Carolina Chickadee has mostly gray wings with less white edging.

Carolina Chickadees prefer deciduous forests and wooded suburban areas where they forage for insects, seeds, and berries. The majority of their diet is insects and spiders, except for the winter when they eat an equal amount of insect and plant material. They are cavity nesters, often using old woodpecker holes or nest boxes. These birds are highly social, frequently forming mixed-species flocks in winter. Their song is often a four note whistle described as   “fee-bee-fee-bay”, but they have many variations.

2. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

Black-capped chickadee perched
Black-capped chickadee perched

The Black-capped Chickadee is found across much of the northern United States and Canada, from Alaska and western Canada to the northern Great Plains, the Great Lakes region, and the northeastern states. This species is characterized by its black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray back, and a soft buffy underbelly. Compared to their southern cousins the Carolina Chickadee, they have more white-edging on their wing feathers.

Black-capped Chickadees inhabit mixed and deciduous forests, as well as suburban areas with sufficient tree cover. They are known for their acrobatic foraging style, often seen flitting through branches in search of insects, seeds, and berries. During the colder months, they are frequent visitors to backyard feeders and are easily recognized by their distinctive “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call and their “fee-bee” song.

3. Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli)

mountain chickadee perched
Mountain Chickadee | Image by:

Mountain Chickadees are predominantly found in the mountainous regions of the western United States, including the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and the Cascades. These birds have a black cap, white cheeks, a black bib, and a distinctive white stripe above the eye that sets them apart from all the other chickadees on our list. Their backs and wings are gray, and their underparts are lighter, usually buffy or grayish.

These chickadees prefer coniferous forests at higher elevations, where they forage for insects, seeds, and occasionally small fruits. Mountain Chickadees are adept at surviving cold winters, often caching food in tree crevices. Their call is a husky “chick-a-dee-dee” with a distinctively more nasal quality than other chickadee species.

4. Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)

Image: Darren Kirby / flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are found along the Pacific coast of North America, from southern Alaska through British Columbia to northern California. They are easily identified by their rich chestnut-colored back and sides, contrasting with their black cap, white cheeks, and grayish wings and tail.

These chickadees prefer dense, moist coniferous forests, particularly those dominated by Douglas fir and western hemlock. They are often seen foraging in the lower canopy and understory for insects and seeds. Their call is a rapid “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” with a softer, more nasal tone than other chickadees.

5. Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

boreal chickadee sitting on snowy evergreen branch
Boreal Chickadee | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Boreal Chickadee is native to the boreal forests of Canada and the northernmost parts of the United States, including Alaska and parts of far northern New England. This chickadee features a dark brown cap, grayish-brown back, and a small black bib. They have the same white cheeks as other species, but the white patch is much smaller. Their belly is white while their sides are a rusty brown.

Boreal Chickadees inhabit dense coniferous forests, particularly those dominated by spruce and fir trees. They forage for insects, seeds, and conifer needles, and are known to store food to survive the harsh winters. Their call is a distinctive, hoarse “tsik-a-day-day” which differs from the more familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” of other species.

6. Mexican Chickadee (Poecile sclateri)

mexican chickadee
Mexican Chickadee | image by Ryan Mandelbaum via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Mexican Chickadee is primarily found in the highland forests of Mexico, but its range extends into the extreme southeastern parts of Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. This species has a black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray back, and lighter underparts, similar in appearance to the Black-capped Chickadee but with a more extensive black bib.

Mexican Chickadees prefer mixed coniferous forests, especially those with a mix of pine and fir trees. They forage for insects and seeds, often high in the forest canopy. Their call is a rapid, high-pitched “dee-dee-dee”.

7. Gray-headed Chickadee (Poecile cinctus)

gray headed chickadee
Gray-headed Chickadee | image by Christoph Moning via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 4.0

The Gray-headed Chickadee, also known as the Siberian Tit, is primarily found in the boreal forests of northern Europe and Asia, but small populations exist in the extreme northwestern parts of North America, including Alaska and northwestern Canada. Their fluffy head has a cocoa brown cap, large white cheeks and black chin patch. They have light underparts with buffy sides and gray wings.

Gray-headed Chickadees inhabit remote, dense coniferous forests, especially those with a mix of spruce and birch trees. They forage for insects, seeds, and conifer needles, often storing food for the winter. Their call is a soft, hoarse “tzee-tzee” which is less pronounced than the calls of other chickadee species.

Winter chickadee on snowy branch
Chickadee perched on snow covered branch | image via Deposit Photos

Interesting Facts About Chickadees

  • Studies have indicated that despite Chickadees frequently visiting feeders, they still obtain 75 to 80 percent of their winter food supply from natural sources.
  • Research has demonstrated that when temperatures drop below 10 degrees, chickadees with access to feeders have nearly double the survival rate compared to those without. This access results in a higher overall winter survival rate of 69% versus 37% for those without feeder access.
  • Chickadees don’t migrate, and those in regions with cold winters need to eat a lot to maintain energy. During very cold weather they may eat as much as 20 times the amount of food they would need during the summer.
  • Mountain Chickadees incubate their eggs 5-7 days longer than Black-capped Chickadees. This may be due to the harder-walled trees that Mountain Chickadees nest in, providing them better protection from predators.
  • In areas where their ranges overlap, Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees sometimes hybridize. These hybrids can sing the songs of either parent species or produce an intermediate song.
  • Many Chickadee species hide and store food to eat later. In studies of Black-capped Chickadees, it is found that they can remember thousands of hiding places!
  • Chickadees are great at sounding the alarm when a potential threat is near. Not only do Chickadees communicate these threats to each other with their dee-dee-dee calls, but other bird species that flock with Chickadees benefit from them as well. 
  • Even though they don’t have a heavy-duty beak like woodpeckers, Chickadees can excavate their own nesting and roosting holes by looking for soft and rotten wood.

chickadee suet window
Black-capped Chickadee visiting suet feeder

How To Attract Chickadees

Here are some effective ways to attract chickadees to your backyard:

1. Put out feeders

All chickadee species will readily visit bird feeders, especially during the winter months when insects are harder to find. They are tiny and acrobatic birds, and should be able to access just about any type of bird feeder you put out!

2. Offer A Variety of Foods

Black-oil sunflower is a great choice for chickadees if you just want to stick to one type of seed. But chickadees will also eat safflower, nyjer, and peanut pieces. They will also visit suet feeders, and as insect eaters can also be attracted with mealworms

3. Provide Nesting Boxes

Place chickadee-friendly nesting boxes in your yard. In general, for a Chickadee box the entrance hole should be 1 1/8 inch diameter, with an inner box depth of 8 inches and a box size of 5.5 inches square. You an also provide nesting materials nearby, such as moss, animal fur, and soft plant fibers.

4. Plant Native Trees and Shrubs

Include native plants that provide natural food sources like insects and berries. Native plants support native insects that Chickadees rely on. If possible maintain a natural habitat with a mix of trees, shrubs, and ground cover to provide shelter and foraging opportunities. Include plants that produce berries and small fruits, like dogwood, serviceberry, and elderberry.

5. Offer Water Sources

A birdbath or shallow water feature can attract Chickadees, especially during hot weather. Make sure to keep the water clean and fresh.

6. Avoid Pesticides

Since Chickadees have insect-heavy diets, reducing or eliminating pesticide use in your yard and garden will help ensure a plentiful food supply for them.

7. Create Brush Piles

Piles of brush or decomposing logs can offer chickadees additional shelter and places to forage for insects.

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