Parus carolinensisCarolina chickadee

Geographic Range

Poecile carolinensis is native to the American Southeast, and is divided into four races: P. c. carolinensis, P. c. extima, P. c. atricapilloides, and P. c. agilis. Poecile c. carolinensis is found in the southeastern United States; its range covers all of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina; northern half of Florida; eastern regions of Arkansas and Louisiana; and the central eastern and northern regions of Tennessee and North Carolina. Poecile c. extima is the northernmost sub species, extending from the southern half of New Jersey across lower Pennsylvania, the central and lower counties of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and the southeastern corner of Missouri. The southern boundary of extimus is the Kentucky – Tennessee border and the Virginia – North Carolina boundary. The species does not occur in the southeastern section of Virginia and in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains. Poecile c. atricapilloides, the westernmost chickadee race, is found along the Kansas – Oklahoma border, central Oklahoma, and the eastern half of the Texas panhandle, extending south almost to the Mexican border. Poecile c. agilis resides in the regions between P. c. carolinensis and P. c. atricapilloides. ("Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)", 1999; Mostrom, et al., 2002)


Temperate forests, preferably those bordering clearings or near waterways. Forest types inhabited include swamp, hardwood, and mixed pine forests. Tree species characteristic of these forests include oaks (Quercus), water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sweetgum (Liquidamber styraciflua), cypress (Taxodium), elm (Ulmus), ash Fraxinus), cottonwood (Populus deltoides or P. heterophylla), maples (Acer), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), beech (Fagus), hickories (Carya), pines (Pinus), and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Additional habitats used include parks and wooded urban areas. In the western portion of its range, Carolina chickadees are restricted to riparian habitats. Poecile carolinensis is generally found inhabiting higher elevations in the absence of black-capped chickadees (P. atricapillus), another species of chickadee that often intermingles in habitat: up to 1200 meters locally in Tennessee (usually 850 meters where the species co-occur) and 1850 meters locally in North Carolina (usually 1380 meters where they co-occur). Poecile carolinensis is believed to be non-migratory. ("Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)", 1999; Mostrom, et al., 2002)

  • Range elevation
    850 to 1850 m
    2788.71 to 6069.55 ft

Physical Description

The following is a general description for all four recognized races (P. c. carolinensis, P. c. extima, P. c. atricapilloides, and P. c. agilis). About twelve centimeters in length with black crown, throat, and lower neck (forming the recognizable “bib”). Chickadees have a white cheek and underparts. The wings and tail are a lighter grey, while the sides and flanks are tinged buffy. Poecile carolinensis is similar in characteristics in both juvenile and adult with juveniles being slightly duller in color. Females are slightly smaller than males. Weight ranges from 9 to 12 grams. ("Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)", 1999; Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Carolina chickadees are very similar in appearance to their close relative, black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus). These two species co-occur in the mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are subtle differences in the amount of white on outer primary feathers, the tail to wing ratio, and overall length. However, hybridization does occur and hybrids may be morphologically intermediate. Songs vary and can be intermediate as well, so can't be used to distinguish these species in sympatry. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    9 to 12 g
    0.32 to 0.42 oz
  • Average length
    12 cm
    4.72 in


Carolina chickadees begin to find mates during the winter. Males begin to sing and become aggressive towards other members of the flock at this time. Mated pairs may be together for only a single season, but evidence suggests that if both breeders survive through the winter they will mate again in subsequent breeding seasons, essentially mating for life. Nest building and egg laying begin from February to April, with timing related to latitude (February in southern parts of the range, April in Ohio and the central Appalachians). (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Poecile carolinensis nests in holes in tree limbs or dead or decaying trees in which cavities can easily be constructed. They will also use birdhouses (especially if sawdust is provided) or cavities constructed by other bird species (such as woodpecker holes). Chickadees frequently begin construction on several cavities before focusing on only one. Both males and females work on construction of the cavity, which usually takes two weeks, but only the female will actually build the nest. The nest consists of soft natural materials, such as the female’s downy feathers, and dry plant matter, including moss. After the eggs are laid, the female will continue to add nest material to ‘blanket’ her eggs while she is away from the nest. Eggs are often hidden under this layer, making it possible to mistake an active nest with one still under construction. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Females lay a single off-white, reddish-brown spotted egg each day until they have their complete brood, between 3 and 10 eggs. Brood size may increase with increasing latitude, average brood size is 5.8. Incubation typically begins when the last egg is laid. Eggs are incubated for from 12 to 15 days (average 12.9) and hatchlings are brooded for 8 days by the female exclusively. Both parents feed the young once they've hatched. Fledging occurs 16 to 19 days after hatching, it may take up to 3 days for the entire brood to fledge. The young become independent 2 to 3 weeks after fledging, join flocks of immature chickadees, and become sexually mature in the first year following their hatching. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

  • Breeding interval
    Poecile carolinensis breeds once in the spring, there are few reports of repeat nesting.
  • Breeding season
    Mating begins in February and continues into April.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 10
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 15 days
  • Average time to hatching
    12.9 days
  • Range fledging age
    16 to 19 days
  • Range time to independence
    4 to 6 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10 months

Both the male and female are partners in the rearing of young. Females alone incubate the eggs and brood the young until they are 8 days old. During the incubation period the male will feed his mate. Once hatched, the young are completely dependent upon the parents for survival. The male will feed the young for the first three or so days after hatching after which the female begins to feed them as well. Males and females protect their young against nest predation and nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


Banding studies show that Carolina chickadees may live as long as ten years and 11 months. Annual survival rates from several studies were estimated from 41 to 61% in Maryland, Ohio, and southeastern and southcentral populations. Food supplementation at bird feeders has been demonstrated to increase survivorship over the winter. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)


Within the flock, P. carolinensis has a complex social order, with a clear dominance hierarchy. Generally, females are subordinate to males, as are smaller males to larger ones. However, ambiguous interactions among other chickadees have been observed, in which birds have no dominant or subordinate affiliations. When foraging, no competition among birds has been observed, yet they will consume more food mass when in a flock than when alone. During the mating season, flocks break apart. Alpha males attack other chickadees in order to ensure dispersal of individuals away from breeding territories, a process that may last for several weeks. This ensures that only dominant birds would remain in the locality, and nesting can occur only by pairs strong enough to maintain territory boundaries. During the mating season, the breeding pair relationship may become weakened and ambiguous as well. Males that were highly successful during the breeding season may then show dominance in general. When flocks of chickadees approach one another, dominance is established between the flock leaders. Additionally, a number of social interactions among and between flocks may potentially alter behavior. (Mostrom, 1993; Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Carolina chickadees are active during the day and do not migrate. Winter flocks are formed in the summer territories of dominant pairs, with dominant individuals being joined by subordinate adults and juveniles. In frigid temperatures, P. carolinensis can conserve energy by lowering its body temperature to a form of hypothermia, in which it may remain for up to fifteen hours. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Home Range

Chickadees maintain territories separated by up to 200 meters during breeding season. Young have been documented dispersing up to 8 km from their natal site. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Communication and Perception

Like other species of chickadees, P. carolinensis utilizes vocalizations to establish and maintain social communication. There are four notes to the calls, and each call can be varied so as to give a certain implication. These highly structured calls are important in the fall and winter months for communication between birds that are searching for food and maintaining organization of the flock. During the mating period it is believed that vocal communication is less significant. A wide variety of other vocalizations is used, including alarm calls, whistles, gargles, and the characteristic "chick-a-dee." (Clucas, et al., 2004; Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Food Habits

Carolina chickadees are omnivorous, eating wild seeds and fruits, as well as small insects and spiders. During the warm months, 80-90% of a chickadees diet is likely to be animal foods. During the winter months they will eat seeds and fruits equally with insects and spiders. They primarily forage on the limbs and trunks of trees (arboreal gleaning), as well as in leaf litter and fallen pine cones. During the colder months, when food is sparse, these chickadees may expand their diet. Poecile carolinensis and other chickadee species that overlap geographically are not believed to compete for food, due to increased dietary generalization. Carolina chickadees frequent bird feeders throughout their range. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Analysis of stomach contents in a population from Florida included the following items: 62% insects (Lepidoptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, and Homoptera), 10% arachnids (Arachnida), 28% plant foods (poison ivy (Rhus radicans), blackberry (Rubus), and blueberry (Vaccinium). Other fruits and seeds eaten include: pine (Pinus), mulberry (Morus), honeysuckle (Lonicera), ragweed (Ambrosia), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


At least one study suggests that Carolina chickadees prefer to nest in the inner areas of woodlots. Though they may forage on the outskirts of woodlots, that area is also preferred by Troglodytes aedon, common house wrens. These wrens often destroy chickadee nests on the woodlot border. Other predators of eggs and nestlings include red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), racoons (Procyon lotor), Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), domestic cats (Felis silvestris), southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans), and rat snakes (Elaphe). Sharp-shinned (Accipiter striatus) and Cooper's hawks (A. cooperii) prey on adults. (Doherty and Grubb, 2002; Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Responses to predators includes mobbing by mated pairs, alarm calls, becoming immobile when a predator is detected, and a snake display, in which the chickadee bangs its head and feathers against the material of the nest and hisses at the same time. Most predation on young is avoided through careful choice of nest cavity and predation on adults is avoided by vigilance. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Ecosystem Roles

Carolina chickadees are important predators on seeds and small insects and insect larvae in the ecosystems in which they live. They are also prey for small avian, mammalian, and snake predators.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Carolina chickadees are delightful birds to watch and frequently visit bird feeders. Their predation on insects, larvae, and eggs may help to control pest populations. They are known to eat certain common pest species that are often avoided by other birds, including hairy Geometridae and Arctiidae caterpillars, katydid eggs (Orthoptera), wheel bugs (Arilus), and bees and ants (Hymenoptera). (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

  • Positive Impacts
  • ecotourism
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known negative effects of P. carolinensis on humans.

Conservation Status

Because it is a common species throughout its region, no efforts have focused attention on the conservation of P. carolinensis. Some local populations may be decreasing, however, while others are increasing. The increase is most often directly linked to human feeders. Additionally, urban population nesting sites decrease as wooded areas are cleared for development or municipal removal of dead and decaying trees. (Mostrom, et al., 2002)

Other Comments

Formerly known as Parus carolinensis. Parus may come from the Greek poekile (“painted”), and carolinensis suggests their geographic affinity, "of Carolina”. ("Georgia Wildlife Web", 2000)


Tanya Dewey (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate


Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. 1999. "Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)" (On-line). Accessed April 10, 2005 at

Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Inc. 1997. "Chipper Woods Bird Observatory" (On-line). Carolina Chickadee. Accessed April 10, 2005 at

2000. "Georgia Wildlife Web" (On-line). Perching Birds: Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis . Accessed April 10, 2005 at

Clucas, B., T. Freeberg, J. Lucas. 2004. Chick-a-dee call syntax, social context, and season affect vocal responses of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 57: 187-196.

Curry, J. 1970. A comparative ethoecological study of the Carolina Chickadee (Parus caolinensis) and Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor) in central Oklahoma. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma.

Doherty, P., T. Grubb. 2002. Nest usurpation is an ‘edge effect’ for Carolina chickadees Poecile carolinensis. Journal of Avian Biology, 33: 77-82.

Harrap, S., D. Quinn. 1995. Chickadees, tits, nuthatches & treecreepers. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.

Mostrom, A. 1993. The social organization of Carolina chickadee (Parus carolinensis) flocks in the non-breeding season. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania.

Mostrom, A., R. Curry, B. Lohr. 2002. Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis). The Birds of North America, 636.

Pravosudov, V., J. Lucas. 2000. The effect of social dominance on fattening and food-caching behaviour in Carolina chickadees, Poecile carolinensis. Animal Behaviour, 60: 483-493.

Rising, J. 1968. A multivariate assessment of interbreeding between the chickadees, Parus atricapillus and P. carolinensis. Systematic Zoology, 17: 160-169.

Thirakhupt, K. 1985. Foraging ecology of sympatric parids: individual and population responses to winter food scarcity (competition, niche, behavior, overlap). West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University.