Bold and agile members of the tit family, black-capped chickadees are a common sight in forested parklands and backyards with plenty of tree cover. Many are unafraid of human company, and some may even hand feed, taking nuts and seeds.
Our guide to black-capped chickadee nesting looks at where these songbirds with their distinctive black bibs prefer to raise their young, so read on if you’d like to learn more.
Black-capped chickadees are cavity nesters, laying their eggs in holes in trees or branches that they have hollowed out themselves. Occasionally small nest boxes may also be used.
Rotten branches and decaying tree trunks and stumps offer suitable locations for black-capped chickadees to set to work, excavating soft wood to form a chamber. This hole is then lined with bark, moss, and down or feathers, which are crafted into a small cup-shaped nest.
To find out more about the ideal spots in which these tiny, acrobatic forest-dwellers set up home and raise their young, then please read on.
Nesting Black-capped Chickadee poking its head out of the cavity
Cavities in trees around the edges of mixed and deciduous forests are the most common spots selected by black-capped chickadees when it comes to nest building. They seek rotten or decaying tree trunks, which they then excavate a hollow in.
The hollow is then lined with grass, moss, and animal fur to form a nest structure. In the absence of a suitable tree, black-capped chickadees will readily use small-sized nesting boxes.
It is highly unusual for a black-capped chickadee to reuse a nest it has used before. Nest boxes should be cleared out at the end of the season in order to make them a viable nesting choice in subsequent years.
They may use a cavity that has been hollowed out by another bird, for example, a downy woodpecker, but tend to start afresh at the start of each breeding season.
Pair of black-capped chickadees have been observed cleaning out a nest box, discarding all old nesting materials through the entrance hole, and then replacing with a new lining. This lowers the risk of disease or parasites being passed to chicks.
While their preferred habitat is in or around the edges of forests and wooded parklands, black-capped chickadees are frequently tempted into suburban backyards by the presence of bird feeders and nest boxes.
Black-capped Chickadee nest
Black-capped chickadees will often turn to nest boxes if no suitable natural sites are available. Smaller-sized boxes are preferred, and to stand the best chance of attracting nesting pairs, the box should be placed between 1 and 3 m (3 and 10 ft) above ground level.
The nest box entrance should be exactly 2.8 cm (1.125 in), as this will keep sparrows and other larger potential predators or competition for food away. No perch is needed on a nest box designed for a black-capped chickadee.
Alder and birch trees are commonly chosen by black-capped chickadees as nesting sites, with pairs selecting trees with soft, rotting wood in which to drill out their cavity.
Natural nesting spots for black-capped chickadees are between 1.2 and 4.5 m (4 and 15 ft) off the ground. If you’re thinking of using a nest box to attract chickadees, the optimum height is anywhere between 1 and 3 m (3 and 10 ft).
When suitable natural nesting cavities aren't available, Black-capped Chickadees will use nest boxes
Black-capped chickadee nests are small hollows in tree trunks, lined with a rounded cup-shaped nest, formed with moss or bark and lined with a deep lining of soft fur and feathers.
Nest boxes are also commonly used, again with the added lining of suitable nest materials to form a rounded base on which eggs can be laid.
The nest chamber of a black-capped chickadee cavity is typically no bigger than 21 cm (8.2 in). Internal dimensions of a hollow excavated by black-capped chickadees are roughly 12.7 cm (5 in) deep x 6 cm (2.375 in) wide.
Inside of a Black-capped Chickadee nest box, with parent looking after the chicks
Nesting begins in the spring, with pairs forming early in the year or even during the preceding winter, before a nest site is selected and construction begins. Eggs are laid between April and July. Even with the latest broods of the year, fledging has usually taken place by early August.
Incubation of black-capped chickadee eggs takes an average 11 to 14 days, although 16 days is not uncommon. Once the young have hatched, the male brings insects to the nest for the female and young. By between 12 and 16 days, young black-capped chickadees are ready to fledge.
Southern populations of black-capped chickadees nest earlier in the year than their northern counterparts. Eggs are laid between April and early June in the north, compared to May to early July for southern pairs.
In the harshest winter conditions, black-capped chickadees will take advantage of abandoned tree cavities (or will drill out their own fresh, single-occupancy holes) to shelter from the cold. Alternatively, they will roost alone in dense branches of conifers, where the thick vegetation offers some protection from freezing temperatures.
Black-capped Chickadee at nesting cavity with green worm
Once a potential nest site is selected, a small hollow in a decaying tree stump or large trunk is excavated by both male and female black-capped chickadees. Many attempts may be started on the same trunk before a final decision is made.
The pair peck at the spot they have chosen on a snag or trunk until a depression starts to form, and then carry away any soft wood they have drilled out of the tree away from the site to avoid attracting the attention of predators.
Once the hollow is around 21 cm (8.2 in) deep, nest materials are brought to the tree, and a foundation of bark and moss is added at the base, and lined with rabbit fur and feathers.
Soft, rotting wood is excavated from a tree stump or trunk to form a hollow, which is then filled with a bed of bed of bark, moss, wood chippings, grass, animal fur and feathers, collected by both birds to form a softer lining on which the eggs are laid.
Black-capped chickadee pairs work together to excavate a cavity in the tree trunk or stump. Once the hollow is around 21 cm (8.2 in) deep, males and females will gather nesting materials, which are arranged inside by the female, who then begins laying around two days after building is completed.
Black-capped Chickadee building and clearing out the nest cavity - wood shavings in beak
Eggs are round-oval in shape, and measure around 1.52 cm × 1.22 cm (0.60 in × 0.48 in). They are a creamy white color, with brownish-red spots that are concentrated at the wider part of the egg.
Black-capped chickadees usually lay between 6 and 8 eggs per clutch, although reports have been recorded of broods with up to 13 eggs have been laid.
Only female black-capped chickadees incubate eggs. Highly attentive males have the responsibility of bringing food to the nest, in response to loud begging calls of the brooding female.
Five Black-capped Chickadee eggs inside the nest
Young black-capped chickadees leave the nest between 12 and 16 days after hatching. Fledging is frequently prompted by parent birds offering food outside the nest cavity to encourage them to leave.
Once young black-capped chickadees have fledged, parental care continues for another few weeks, although juveniles quickly master the art of catching food for themselves.
It’s normal for black-capped chickadees to just breed once each season. If a nest fails early in the season, then a second brood may be attempted and raised successfully.
Black-capped Chickadee feeding a recently fledged chick
If disturbed by predators or a nest fails for another reason, then it’s possible that black-capped chickadees will abandon their cavity and start again elsewhere. Depending on how late in the season it is, second broods may or may not be successful.
Females are notorious for fierce defense of their nest cavities, making a loud hissing call when they sense an intruder nearby.
A black-capped chickadee will never make its nest on the ground, preferring to use a cavity in a tree trunk or stump at least a meter high.
Nesting females will remain on their eggs or with their chicks overnight in the nest cavity until their young have fledged. Outside of the breeding season, it’s more common for birds to roost in the thick upper branches of evergreen trees or in dense shrubbery.
In colder weather, holes in trees may be used as overnight roosting spots, with one bird per hollow.
A birdhouse positioned around 1 to 3 m (3 to 10 ft) off the ground, in a sunny spot, or on a tree with plenty of branch cover will provide an ideal habitat for a pair of nesting chickadees.
Nearby feeders, stocked with sunflower seeds, raisins, or suet, will attract black-capped chickadees, as will peanut butter smeared directly onto a branch or tree trunk.
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