Birding Basics: A Chickadee Identification Challenge

Carolina Chickadee vs Black-capped Chickadee

One of the most common identification challenges that I run into when working at Wild Birds Unlimited is trying to separate Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. Many people call all chickadees Black-capped by default even though that is not the species that occurs in many areas around the country. Part of the confusion with identifying these two species is there is a large area where their ranges come together, and they will actually hybridize, making telling the species apart almost impossible.  Range maps for both types of chickadees are below.

Birding Basics Chickadee Identification
You can tell in this map from eBird that Black-capped Chickadees are the more northern of the two chickadee species we are comparing. Click here for an interactive map.
Birding Basics Chickadee Identification
In contrast to the previous map, we can see that Carolina Chickadee is the more southern of the two species we are comparing. Click here for an interactive map.

In addition to having different ranges, there are small variations in the plumage of these species. As you can see in the photos below, the Black-capped Chickadee has a white nape (the back of the neck) and white edges on its secondaries, where the Carolina Chickadee shows a much more gray nape and more gray in the secondaries.

Birding Basics Chickadee Identification
You can really see how white the edges of the secondaries are in this photo of a Black-capped Chickadee. It also helps to get an up-close, in-hand view!
Birding Basics Chickadee Identification
I always find it easiest to see the difference in the secondaries. This Carolina Chickadee shows almost no white in that area at all!

Let us know what species of chickadee you are seeing!

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Rob Ripma
Rob Ripma, a lifelong Indiana resident, has traveled and birded extensively throughout the Americas.