Refresh your chickadee indentification skills
Whether you are watching birds in Alaska or Saskatchewan, California or Colorado, Maine or Mississippi, chances are youve seen a chickadee lately. The chickadee is one of the most familiar and endearing birds in North America. Its diminutive size, cheerful voice, attractive coloring, and its willingness to alight on your feeders (and sometimes your hand) make it a charming winter visitor.
In case youre wondering which chickadee youre seeing, this article will help you sort out which species are found where and how you can tell them apart based on their appearance, geographic location, and habitat.
Chickadees are some of the most frequently observed birds in Project FeederWatch. Indeed, of the seven chickadee species that breed in North America, five are commonly reported by FeederWatchers: Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Mountain Chickadee. Two others, the Mexican Chickadee and the Siberian Tit, also breed in North America but as yet have not been reported by FeederWatchers (see "The Chickadee Challenge").
Visual CuesAll chickadees are diminutive in size, ranging from 4.5 inches (Carolina Chickadees) to 5.5 inches (Boreal Chickadees). They all have a small, sharp beak, a dark crown and bib, whitish cheeks, gray or brownish upperparts, and off-white underparts with a variable amount of buff on their flanks.
Chickadees are often described as either "black-capped" or "brown-capped." The black-capped chickadees include (you guessed it) Black-capped Chickadees, Carolina Chickadees, and Mountain Chickadees. The brown-capped chickadees include Boreal and Chestnut-backed chickadees.
"FeederWatchers Notebook" points out the distinguishing marks of Black-capped and Carolina chickadees, because these species are the most confusing to eastern bird watchers. Because they overlap in appearance as well as geographic distribution, these birds are often misidentified. For these two species of black-capped chickadees, clues of distinction include the bib and the inner greater coverts of the wing. To learn more about the field marks on these chickadees, see "FeederWatchers Notebook" below.
The other three chickadees are rather distinctive. The Mountain Chickadee is similar to the Black-capped Chickadee, but it has an obvious white line over the eye that interrupts its black cap. The Boreal Chickadee has a dull brown cap and bright orange-cinnamon flanks. Its white forecheek darkens to a pale gray. The Chestnut-backed Chickadee has a dark brown cap and chestnut-colored back and flanks. It also has white cheeks and distinctive dark gray wings.
The dark cap and dark bib with white cheeks make each of these birds easy to distinguish as chickadees. Correctly identifying the species, however, can be more challenging in some areas of North America; thus, FeederWatchers must be aware of differences in the geographic ranges and habitats of each species. For more information about these birds, see Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches, and Creepers by Simon Harrap and David Quinn.
If you have any doubts as to which species of chickadee youre seeing, find out which species is most common in your area. Figures 1 through 5 on page 6 show the ranges of the five FeederWatch chickadee species. If you live in the Southeast, chances are you see Carolina Chickadees; if youre in Arizona, chances are you see Mountain Chickadees.
But if you live in an area where the geographic ranges of species overlap, as in the North and West and in a narrow band along the central eastern United States (see Figure 6), it might not be so easy to distinguish between chickadees. For example, Carolina and Black-capped chickadees are known to hybridize in the narrow band where their ranges overlap (Figure 6). In winter, when Black-capped Chickadees disperse southward, this area of overlap becomes wider. In this zone—which ranges from 9 to 19 miles in width and extends from New Jersey west through Kansas—it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the two species. Although the songs of these species are usually quite distinctive, even they wont do the trick every time. Chickadees have been known to imitate each others songs, and hybrids can perform both repertoires. Luckily, where two species of chickadee overlap, they often occupy very different habitats.
Habitat Differences Among the Chickadees
Chickadees, Black-capped or black-capped?
If you live in the eastern United States, the most difficult chickadee identification you will encounter is that between the Black-capped Chickadee and the Carolina Chickadee. These two black-capped species look so similar that unless viewing conditions are optimal, you should depend on your geographic location to tell you which chickadee you are seeing: if you are north of the zone of overlap (see Figure 6), youre probably seeing a Black-capped Chickadee. If you are south of the zone, you are probably seeing a Carolina Chickadee. And if you are in or near the zone of overlap, then your best bet is to call your chickadees "mixed Carolina and Black-capped chickadees" on your FeederWatch checklist. For those who are up to the challenge of distinguishing the two chickadees, see "FeederWatchers Notebook" for hints.
So, if you are watching birds for fun, by all means enjoy the flitting and fleeting chickadees without assigning names to them. But if you are reporting your data to Project FeederWatch or another monitoring program, pay close attention to the suite of clues that accompany your chickadee sighting: namely, the birds appearance, geographic location, and habitat. These clues, when used in concert, are usually enough to tell the chickadees apart.