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.
|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.
|-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
|-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.
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
map courtesy of Birdsource
watchers near the zone of overlap are encouraged to take extra precaution
with the identification of these species.
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
-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.
Chickadees (Note: clicking here will bring up a second browser
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
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.
Accounts from the Birdhouse Network: Black-capped
Learn details about the breeding biology and
winter movement and dispersal of these species from the Lab's cavity-nesting bird
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.
SteinLNS catalogue number 14655; Carolina Chickadee song recorded by William W. H.
Gunn; Carolina Chickadee call recorded by Geoffrey A. Keller.