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The Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) can be confusing species for eastern bird watchers to identify. The ranges of these species do not overlap much, so for many people a quick look at a range map will show which species are most likely to occur at their feeders. But for those who live in the zone of overlap, a fairly stable and narrow band that runs along the east-central United States, the chickadees pose a serious identification challenge. To complicate matters, the species have been known to hybridize in the overlap zone.  When identifying these two chickadees, concentrate equally on the differences in plumage and the differences in vocalizations.

b-c_chick_titl.gif (1698 bytes)

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A small (avg. 5.25" long), acrobatic bird with longer tail and (to some observers) a proportionately larger head. The smallest (avg. 4.75"" long) North American chickadee with a proportionately smaller head and shorter tail.

Black-capped Chickadee by Larry McQueen with range map

sexes similar

Carolina Chickadee by Larry McQueen with range map
sexes similar

-The lower edge of the black bib is less defined and appears uneven. Mostly white on nape of neck.

-In fresh plumage (usually in the autumn) the greater wing coverts (marked with an arrow in picture above) and secondaries are broadly edged in white.

-The white patch on the wing is more exaggerated.

-The outer tail feathers are more broadly edged with white on the Black-capped Chickadee.

-The bib is smaller and well defined (there is a neat line of separation between the bib and belly). Mostly greyish on nape of neck.

-The greater wing coverts (marked with an arrow in picture above) are more uniformly grey and show less white.

-The cinnamon-buff coloring under the wings is less developed on the Carolina Chickadee (but fresh adults in the northeast part of its range show brighter cinnamon and can be confused with Black-capped)

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Narrow zone of overlap between species' ranges

bcchcach_map.gif (8294 bytes)
map courtesy of Birdsource

Bird watchers near the zone of overlap are encouraged to take extra precaution
with the identification of these species.

Songs and Calls

Near the zone of overlap, birds have been known to learn each other's vocalizations, and hybrids tend to deliver odd-sounding variations. A bird located near the zone of overlap that sings both songs, or sings "odd-sounding" songs, cannot be positively identified in the field.

-The Black-capped's call is a lower and slower chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Functions as a contact call, one that serves to keep the winter flock together when birds cannot see one another.

-It's song is a clear fee-bee. A loud version given during territory skirmishes, a soft version given during mate feeding.

-The Carolina's call is a higher and faster chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

-It also has a four note song, fee-bee-fee-bay.


Additional information

Birdscope article: Distinguishing Chickadees (Note: clicking here will bring up a second browser window.)

This Winter, 1999 article discusses the geographic distribution, habitat, and migratory and feeding habits of these two species.  Birdscope is the quarterly newsletter received by Project FeederWatchers and members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Bird-of-the-Week: Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Chickadees

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird-of-the-Week series contains detailed species accounts as well as photographs and paintings from a variety of sources. Each also contains identification tips that compare and contrast similar-looking species. 

Species Accounts from the Birdhouse Network Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Chickadee.

Learn details about the breeding biology and winter movement and dispersal of these species from the Lab's cavity-nesting bird monitoring project.



Resources used to compile this review: The Birdhouse Network's Bird Bios series; The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bird of the Week series; Kenn Kaufman's Advanced Birding (a Peterson field guide); The Sibley Guide to Birds (published by Alfred A. Knopf); Field Guide to the Birds of North America (published by National Geographic); Winter 1999 Birdscope article: Distinguishing Chickadees by Laura Kammermeier and Steve Kelling; A Guide to Bird Behavior Volume 1 by Donald Stokes.

Illustrations by Larry McQueen, a world-renowned bird artist whose work is highly regarded for its ability to capture the true "essence" and beauty of birds.

Bird Recordings: Black-capped Chickadee song recorded by Gregory F. Budney; Black-capped Chickadee call recorded by Robert C. Stein—LNS catalogue number 14655; Carolina Chickadee song recorded by William W. H. Gunn; Carolina Chickadee call recorded by Geoffrey A. Keller.

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