Parus atricapillusblack-capped chickadee

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Geographic Range

Black-capped chickadees are confined to North America, ranging from Alaska through the southern half of Canada and south to the upper two-thirds of the United States. (Sibley, 2000; Smith, 1993)

Habitat

Black-capped chickadees prefer deciduous woodlands, open woods and parks, cottonwood groves, and willow thickets. They are most commonly seen near edges of wooded areas. They are a frequent visitor to backyard feeders. Black-capped chickadees nest in cavities, usually in dead trees or stumps, and are attracted to habitats with suitable nesting locations. During the winter, small flocks of black-capped chickadees can be found in dense conifer forests. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988)

Physical Description

Black-capped chickadees are easily recognized by their short plump bodies, solid black cap and bib, and white cheeks. They are a small bird weighing only 11 g and measuring 13.3 cm in length. Their wingspans measure 20.3 cm in flight. Their backs and wings are dark greenish-gray, with some streaks of white and black adorning the wing feathers. Their bellies are white with a light-rufous color on the flanks. They have small, pointed black beaks and dark legs. Male and female chickadees are identical.

Young black-capped chickadees resemble adults, but have brighter colors with more rufous coloration on the flanks. (Sibley, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    11 g
    0.39 oz
  • Average mass
    10.4 g
    0.37 oz
    AnAge
  • Average length
    13.3 cm
    5.24 in
  • Average wingspan
    20.3 mm
    0.80 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.252 W
    AnAge

Reproduction

Black-capped chickadees are a monogamous species. It is unknown whether they mate for life. There is no evidence of courtship displays for this species, but males will pursue females in flight to show interest. Pair formation usually occurs during fall migration, with some winter or spring pairs forming as a result of partner mortality. Individuals usually pair off according to rank such that the highest ranking male will mate with the highest ranking female. Males and females will establish rank independently. (Smith, 1993)

Both males and females participate in excavating a nest in a dead tree or rotting stump. Black-capped chickadees prefer a nesting tree if the heartwood is soft, but the outer wood is sturdy. Pairs will often excavate several nest cavities before the female selects one to begin building a nest in. The cavity is lined with moss, feathers, wood shavings, and animal hair. Nest cavities are rarely re-used in subsequent years. The breeding season begins in early spring, and the clutches are laid between April and early July (varying geographically). The female begins laying eggs 1 to 2 days after completing the nest, with a typical clutch consisting of 6 to 8 eggs. Females are the sole incubators and begin brooding the nest when the second to last egg is laid. The incubation period lasts 12 to 13 days, during which time the male will bring food for the female. The young are altricial at birth and weigh an average 1 g. The young are fed and brooded until they fledge at 14 to 18 days post-hatch. The parents and fledgelings then leave the nest site, but travel in a group and the parents continue to feed the young until they reach independence at 5 to 6 weeks of age. (Smith, 1993)

  • Breeding interval
    Black-capped chickadees breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Black-capped chickadees breed from April to early August.
  • Range eggs per season
    5 to 10
  • Average eggs per season
    6 to 8
  • Average eggs per season
    7
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 13 days
  • Range fledging age
    14 to 18 days
  • Range time to independence
    5 to 6 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    180 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    180 days
    AnAge

In black-capped chickadees, both males and females participate in excavating a cavity nest. They will excavate several cavities and the female will select one to construct a nest. The female builds the nest alone and fills the cavity with moss, feathers, wood chips and animal fur. During this time, the male will protect the surrounding territory by distracting any predators and leading them away from the nest. The female performs all egg incubation and the male will feed her. Once the chicks have hatched, the male continues his feeding duties and will provide food for the female and the chicks. Black-capped chickadees are born altricial and require significant parental investments to feed and brood the young until they can see, thermoregulate, and feed on their own. The female will leave the nest after the young develop feathers, and she will participate in gathering food for the growing chicks. After chicks have fledged, the family will leave the nest site and travel together until the young reach independence. Both the male and female participate in feeding the young until independence. (Smith, 1993)

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

Lifespan/Longevity

There has been little formal study regarding the lifespan of black-capped chickadees. It is estimated that they live an average of 2.5 years with the oldest on record being 12.5 years old. (Smith, 1993)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    12.5 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    2.5 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    149 months
    Bird Banding Laboratory

Behavior

Black-capped chickadees hop on trees (occasionally on the ground), rather than "walking." These birds are very active during the day, and can often be seen foraging upside-down. Black-capped chickadees form monogamous pairs which usually stay together for several years. The black-capped chickadee social system has two extremes, one shown by territorial pairs during the breeding season, and the other consisting of non-breeding flocks. These are often mixed species flocks including nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, brown creepers, warblers, and vireos. Black-capped chickadees perform short-distance migrations, but remain in the same general region throughout the year. Dominance hierarchies exist in this species and have a significant impact on mate selection. Dominance generally increases with age, but there have been some observed exceptions. Males are dominant to females, as well. Dominant individuals mate with other dominant individuals and have access to the best resources, which usually leads to greater nesting success than subordinate individuals. (Smith, 1993)

  • Range territory size
    15,000 to 53,000 m^2

Home Range

Pairs have set territories during the breeding season which range from 1.5 to 5.3 ha. (Smith, 1993)

Communication and Perception

Black-capped chickadees are well known for their distinctive calls which sound like "chick-a-dee-dee-dee." This is not the only sound they make, however, as adults can produce 16 different calls. Young chickadees can produce 3 types of calls which are used for begging for food or if they are in distress. Males use a two-note "fee-bee" call to establish territory and attract mates. Chickadees also make an angry "gargle" call when intruders enter their territory.

Black-capped chickadees also communicate through body postures or movements. These body postures are known to convey aggression or appeasement. Aggressive behaviors include ruffling the body or crown feathers, hopping and pivoting between two individuals, or an open-mouthed advance by one chickadee on another. Subordinate individuals will often try to appease an approaching dominant individual by holding their feathers tightly to their bodies while leaning and facing away from the dominant bird. Males and females perform a distraction display where a bird will fan it's tail feathers and wings to lure predators away from the nest.

Like all birds, black-capped chickadees perceive their environment through visual, tactile, auditory and chemical stimuli. (Smith, 1993)

Food Habits

Black-capped chickadees feed on both animals and plants (the overall consumption has been measured to be about 70% animal and 30% plant). Animal foods consist mainly of insects and spiders. Caterpillars are preferred in the breeding season. Chickadees have been observed eating dead deer, skunks and fish. Plant materials eaten by chickadees include honeysuckle and blackberries, seeds from hemlocks, and wax-covered berries such as those of poison ivy and bayberry. They are often seed at backyard bird feeders, eating seed and suet. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Smith, 1993)

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

Predation

Black-capped chickadees give sharp "zeet" alarm calls when they see a predator. Predators are often mobbed by groups of chickadees in order to scare it away. Predators near nests often evoke a distraction display, where the chickadee lands near the predator, leans towards it with the tail feathers fully spread, and raises and lowers its wings. (Smith, 1993)

Adult black-capped chickadees are preyed on primarily by small hawks, owls, and shrikes, including sharp-shinned hawks, northern shrikes, eastern screech owls, and northern saw-whet owls. Eggs and nestlings are preyed on by mammalian nest predators such as raccoons, squirrels (genera Sciurus and Tamiasciurus), opossums, and weasels. House wrens sometimes destroy eggs in order to take over the nesting cavity. (Smith, 1993)

Ecosystem Roles

As a cavity nesting species that excavates new nests each season, black-capped chickadees create habitat for other local species that rely on cavities. Many species that nest in cavities do not have the ability to create cavities themselves and are only able to breed where others have abandoned a nest. Black-capped chickadees occasionally eat seeds and berries and likely contribute to local seed distribution. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Smith, 1993)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
  • creates habitat

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Black-capped chickadees help control populations of insect species that may be harmful to agriculture and forestry. (Smith, 1993)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no negative effects of black-capped chickadees on humans.

Conservation Status

While the clearing of forests for agriculture has led to more forest edge, which is favorable to black-capped chickadees, too much cutting can cause lack of natural nest sites. Due to feeders and nestboxes, however, black-capped chickadee populations are stable. (Smith, 1993)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, George Hammond (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.

Jennifer Roof (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Nearctic

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

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

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.

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.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  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

endothermic

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.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

forest

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

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

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).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

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.

oviparous

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

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

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

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

solitary

lives alone

suburban

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

tactile

uses touch to communicate

taiga

Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.

temperate

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).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

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

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Smith, Susan M. 1991. The Black-capped Chickadee: Behavioral Ecology and Natural History. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc..

Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Chanticleer Press, Inc..

Smith, S. 1993. "Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)" (On-line). Birds of North America Online. Accessed July 09, 2008 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039.