The Chickadee Bunch: All About Chickadees

When these sociable birds aren't weaving through branches on the hunt for insects, they're flocking to backyard feeders.

Watching chickadees flit through the treetops is like witnessing master acrobats at work. These adorable birds duck and dodge through branches as they hunt down small insects. Not only are chickadees super cute, they also have winning personalities. They are curious and unafraid of humans, and old-time birders call this classic chickadee trait “confiding.”

How to Spot Black-Capped Chickadees

Although there are seven different species of chickadee in the U.S., all of them have snazzy dark caps and black bibs, and they call a version of their own name. The call varies in pitch, speed and clarity depending on the species, but the easiest version to learn to recognize is that of the black-capped chickadee with its chick-a-dee-dee-dee call. Black-capped chickadees are found at feeders throughout much of the continent, from Alaska and Canada to the mountains of New Mexico and Tennessee.

Chickadee Songs

A Carolina chickadee perched on a berry tree branch.photo credit: Bill Leaman
photo credit: Bill Leaman A Carolina chickadee perches in a berry tree in the southeast part of the U.S.

Most chickadees, the black-capped included, are talkative, with a whole repertoire of high, wheezy notes in addition to the trademark call. In spring, black-cappeds sing a loud two- to three-note fee-bee mating call. A super high-pitched seeee is a warning that there is a predator around, and every chickadee within hearing distance freezes upon hearing it. That watchfulness may contribute to the bird’s surprisingly long life span—about 10 years!

If folks around you are speaking with a southern drawl, chances are you’re in Carolina chickadee territory, in the Southeast, Deep South and lower Midwest. The Carolina chickadee’s geographic range overlaps the black-capped, so listen and look for differences. Its chick-a-dee-dee call is higher and faster than the black-capped. Also, its white cheek darkens to pale gray toward the nape, while the black-capped’s is completely white, with more white on its wing feathers.

What Chickadees Eat

Chickadees are always on the move, picking off insects of any stage—eggs, larvae, pupae, adults—from leaves and branches. Pairs remain together year-round, and from fall through early spring, chickadees form small roaming flocks with titmice, nuthatches, warblers, brown creepers, kinglets and the occasional woodpecker.

All chickadee species can be seen within their respective range throughout the year, although they visit backyard feeders less often in spring and summer, when insects are at their peak. However, chickadees lay as many as 10 eggs per year, and that’s a lot of mouths to feed. If a chickadee has a hungry spring brood nearby, it will become a regular at your seed feeder. (Read more: 3 Types of Seeds Birds Love)

Where to See Mountain and Chestnut-Backed Chickadees

Mountain chickadee perched on branch.photo credit: Bob Kothenbeutel
photo credit: Bob Kothenbeutel The mountain chickadee sports a distinct feature—a white eyebrow.

If you notice a chickadee with a white stripe on its head, it’s probably a mountain chickadee. These little birds forage in high coniferous Western forests, from Canada to near the Rio Grande, but they nest in dead aspens because the soft wood is easy to excavate. Like all other chickadees, these birds stash food away for winter, caching nuts and seeds. Their call is distinguished by its slight lisp or buzz.

In the Northwest and along the Pacific Coast, you’ll find the chestnut-backed chickadee at home in cities and towns as well as dense evergreen forests. The chick-a-dee call of this species is higher and thinner than the others, almost squeaky and with fewer dees.

Where to See Boreal, Mexican and Gray-Headed Chickadees

Boreal chickadee sits in pine tree.photo credit: Glenn Bartley
photo credit: Glenn Bartley Boreal chickadees live almost exclusively in boreal forests of Alaska and Canada.

Although black-capped, Carolina, mountain and chestnut-backed are the chickadee species you’re most likely to see in the U.S., there are three others to cross off of your birding bucket list: boreal, Mexican and gray-headed chickadees. The boreal forests of Canada, Alaska and edges of the northeastern states are home to chickadees of the same name, a brown-capped bird with a slow, scratchy chick-a-dee call.

In contrast, you’ll have to head far south to the pine forests of the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona and the Animas Mountains in New Mexico, which are the only places in the U.S. to see the Mexican chickadee’s big black bib and hear its hoarse chick-a-dee.

The rarest of all seven U.S. species is the gray-headed chickadee, and unless there’s a polar bear reading over your shoulder, you’re probably not in this bird’s territory. It lives in such an inaccessible part of the Arctic Circle in Alaska that ornithologists still don’t know much about it, except that it roams stunted balsam poplars and spruces and sings shick-a-day, its own version of the usual song.

How to Feed Chickadees

Chestnut-backed chickadeephoto credit: Bob Kothenbeutel
photo credit: Bob Kothenbeutel Chestnut-backed chickadees call the West Coast and Pacific Northwest their home.

To attract the chickadee species of your area to your backyard, set up a nest box. These endearing birds usually nest surprisingly low, like in old stumps or holes 4 to 15 feet off the ground. Mount the nest box on a tree trunk about 6 feet high for a clear view of the activity, and welcome your new chickadee neighbors with an offering of dog fur or soft, curled feathers they can use to construct a deep nest.

At the feeder, sunflower seeds satisfy chickadees, but peanuts and chopped nuts are truly irresistible. High-fat suet and peanut butter are also popular. Grab-and-go is their typical dining style, but they’ll soon be back for more. (Read more:  How to Feed Birds By Hand)

The Seven Species of Chickadees in the U.S.

  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Mountain chickadee
  • Boreal chickadee
  • Carolina chickadee
  • Gray-headed chickadee
  • Mexican chickadee
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee

Sally Roth
Sally Roth gardens in desertlike conditions in the High Rockies but she can't resist plants with colorful foliage, like coleus.