Discriminating the Chickadees


The chickadee is a familiar backyard bird in the United States and Canada. It's also one of the most-frequently observed birds in Project FeederWatch. Although there are seven chickadee species that breed in North America, all have a characteristic dark cap and bib with white cheeks, making them easy to distinguish as "a chickadee."

Correctly identifying a chickadee to species, however, can be far more challenging. Two species in particular—the Black-capped Chickadee and the Carolina Chickadee—overlap not only in appearance but also in geographic distribution. This often leads to misidentification. Before assuming a chickadee is one species or another, it is important to learn where each species occurs and how to tell them apart.

Of the seven North American chickadee species, five are commonly reported by Project FeederWatchers. These are Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli), Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus), and Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens).

The geographic ranges of the five species of chickadee overlap, particularly in the North and West. But specific habitat preferences and behavioral characteristics separate them.

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  • Boreal Chickadee

    This chickadee is one of the few passerines whose range is almost totally limited to the northern boreal forests, where it prefers dense conifer stands, particularly black spruce and balsam fir.

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  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee

    These chickadees prefer mature conifers particularly along the coastal rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. It is typically found in edge habitat, alongside a stream, for example. The species is currently undergoing a range expansion to the south and to the east.

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  • Mountain Chickadee

    These chickadees prefer mixed-forest habitat. Even in winter, they are seldom found at elevations less than 3,000 feet, although they will occasionally irrupt into lower elevations.

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  • Carolina Chickadee

    These chickadees prefer deciduous woods, especially along edges of streams or clearings. A lowland species, Carolina Chickadees are replaced by Black-capped Chickadees at higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains.

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  • Black-capped Chickadee

    These chickadees prefer a variety of habitats. Generally a lowland species, Black-capped Chickadees prefer deciduous or mixed forests, except for the northern and Appalachian parts of its range, where it prefers conifers. In the southeastern portion of its range, it is primarily montane, replacing the Carolina Chickadee at elevations above 1,800 feet in winter and 3,600 feet in summer.

 
All chickadees are diminutive in size, ranging from 4.5 inches (Carolina Chickadee) to 5.5 inches (Boreal Chickadee). They all have a small, sharp beak; bare parts are black or dark gray. All chickadees exhibit a dark crown and bib, whitish cheeks, gray or brownish upperparts, and dirty white underparts, with a variable amount of buff on the flanks.

 

  Boreal Chickadee

The cap is distinct in being dark pinkish brown that fades to gray on the upper mantle. Boreal Chickadees are white on the fore cheek, but this fades to light gray behind the eye and extends to the nape. The bib is small and sooty black. The upperparts are olive gray and contrasts little with the nape. Flight and tail feathers are darker gray. The flight feathers have fine pale fringes. The breast and belly are whitish. Flanks and vent are variably washed with cinnamon.


Boreal Chickadee vocalizations (.wav 57kb)

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Chestnut-backed Chickadee

The crown is dark brown and extends to the upper mantle. The Chestnut-backed Chickadee face is white from the cheeks to the sides of the nape. The bib is dark brown and sharply defined. Upperparts are dull chestnut, contrasting sharply with the dark gray tail and flight feathers. The greater coverts and flight feathers are edged with buff. Bright chestnut flanks contrast sharply with the white belly, except in the coastal California race, which have less chestnut on the flanks.

Chestnut-Backed Chickadee vocalizations (.wav 60 kb)

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Mountain Chickadee

The cap is sooty black and extends to the upper nape. The supercilium is white and unique among North American chickadees. The lores and eye stripe are sooty black. The Mountain Chickadee shows white from the cheeks to the side of the nape. The black bib is not sharply defined. Upperparts are grayish brown, with flight and tail feathers only slightly darker gray. The greater coverts are indistinctly edged with pale gray. The flanks are grayish or olive. The belly and breast are grayish white.

Mountain Chickadee vocalizations (.wav 85 kb)

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Carolina Chickadee

The crown is sooty black and extends to the lower nape. The Carolina Chickadee face is white from the cheeks to the sides of the nape. The sooty black bib is sharply defined. Upperparts are gray with an olive wash. Secondaries have indistinct white edges that contrast with gray greater coverts. Flanks are pale gray buff, only slightly contrasting with the grayish-white breast and belly.

Carolina Chickadee vocalizations (.wav 96 kb)

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Black-capped Chickadee

The cap is sooty black and extends to the lower nape. Black-capped Chickadees are white from the cheeks to the side of the nape. The black bib extends from the chin and throat to the lower sides of the cheeks and upper breast, where its demarcation is poorly defined. Upperparts are olive gray with slightly darker tail and flight feathers. The inner greater coverts are broadly edged with white; they contrast sharply with the rest of the olive-gray upperparts. The outer tail feathers are broadly fringed with white. The breast, belly, and vent are whitish. Flanks, breast, and belly are buff, the extent of which is variable.

Black-capped Chickadee vocalizations (41 kbytes)

Black-capped Chickadee by Larry McQueen (6767 bytes)


Making the Right Identification

As previously mentioned, the most difficult chickadee identification is between the Black-capped Chickadee and the Carolina Chickadee. The two species, which are similar in appearance, are known to hybridize where their ranges overlap. Furthermore, in winter, when Black-capped Chickadees disperse southward, this area of overlap becomes even more widespread (see map below). In this zone, which can range between 15 and 30 km in width and extends from New Jersey west through Kansas, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the two species. Unless viewing conditions are optimal, it is best to leave the chickadee identification as "chickadee sp." within this zone. When they are in fresh plumage (fall and winter), visual characteristics are sufficient in discriminating between the two.

 

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Carolina Chickadee

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Black-capped Chickadee

 
  • The bib is smaller and better defined in a Carolina Chickadee.

  • In fresh plumage, the Black-capped Chickadee has broad white edges on its inner greater coverts, whereas the greater coverts on the Carolina are uniformly gray. Thus, a white patch on the wing of a Black-capped Chickadee is broader than it is on a Carolina Chickadee.

  • Also, the outer tail feathers are more broadly edged with white on a Black-capped Chickadee.
  • Finally, the cinnamon-buff coloring of the underparts is less extensive on a Carolina Chickadee.

  • Vocalization comparison

The map illustrates the geographic boundary between Black-capped Chickadee and Carolina Chickadee. It is rare to find a Carolina Chickadee north of the dark line running through the map, as it is to see a Black-capped Chickadee south of that line. In the Appalachian Mountains, a chickadee found higher than 1,800 feet in elevation is usually a Black-capped Chickadee, whereas a chickadee below that elevation should be a Carolina Chickadee. In the zone of overlap (the black line demarcating the border between the 2 species, it is extremely difficult to correctly identify the chickadee to species.

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The map illustrates the boundary between Carolina Chickadee (green) and Black-capped Chickadee (yellow). The zone of overlap of the 2 species range is represented by the black line. Essentially, any bird north of the line or above 1,800 feet (in the Appalachians) is a Black-capped Chickadee. In the zone of overlap, extreme care should be taken in making an identification, as the two species are similar in appearance, and they commonly hybridize.


Mountain Chickadee

The obvious field mark of the Mountain Chickadee is the white supercilium. But this field mark can be less obvious when the bird is in worn plumage. Without the supercilium clearly apparent, the Mountain Chickadee is similar in appearance to the Black-capped Chickadee. When both species are in worn plumage, discrimination between them can be made by comparing the size of the bill, which is much longer on the Mountain Chickadee.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

The coastal California race of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee has much less chestnut on its flanks. Many field guides do not show this coastal form. Furthermore, in areas where it overlaps Boreal Chickadee, care must be taken in discriminating duller-plumaged Chestnut-backed Chickadees and brighter-plumaged Boreal Chickadees. Remember, Chestnut-backed Chickadees always have a dull chestnut back, whereas Boreal Chickadee backs are olive gray.