The chickadees include around 13 North American bird species from the genus Poecile of the tit family Paridae. These small, approachable birds are pretty common and meet in the wild in the eastern USA. However, despite looking so similar, DNA records suggest these birds diverged some 2.5 million years ago! Here, we’re going to unravel the challenge of telling apart the Black-capped chickadee from the Carolina chickadee.
Firstly, the Black-capped chickadee is by far the most common of the two birds and has a much wider range spanning pretty much the entirety of the USA and southern Canada, though they’re also found in Alaska. Conversely, the Carolina chickadee is relatively confined to the southeastern USA. The two birds converge along a wide strip spanning from New Jersey to Kansas.
In terms of looks, the Black-capped chickadee is slightly larger than the Carolina chickadee. The Black-capped chickadee also has more strongly contrasting plumage, including a paler breast and underside of the body.
To confuse these birds further, they often hybridize across the strip where they meet, particularly when the Black-capped chickadees push further south during migration than they would usually do. Hybrid Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are pretty much impossible to identify.
Read on to learn more about how to identify these two remarkably similar looking birds!
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
The Black-capped chickadee is marginally larger than the Carolina chickadee, but size varies across the species, with northern populations of Black-capped chickadees generally being larger than southern populations.
The Black-capped chickadee is 12 to 15 cm long (4.7 to 5.9 in) with a wingspan of 16 to 21 cm (6.3–8.3 in). It weighs around 9 to 14 g.
The Carolina chickadee is around 11.5 to 13 cm (4.5 to 5.1 in) long with a wingspan of 15 to 20cm (5.9 to 7.9 in). It weighs around 9 to 12 g.
Close up of a perched Carolina Chickadee
Black-capped chickadees are extremely common, with a population numbering some 40 million individuals. They’re mainly concentrated in the northern and northwestern USA but are found across virtually every middle and northern US state and most of southern Canada.
Carolina chickadees are less common with a much narrower range; they live in New Jersey to Kansas and south to Florida and Texas. They’re also the more sedentary of the two birds, so while Black-capped chickadees migrate and disperse across their range, Carolina chickadees tend to stick to their narrower range.
Moreover, Black-capped chickadees are more cold-hardy and are comfortable living at high altitudes, which means Black-capped and Carolina chickadees might be somewhat separated even where they converge in the Appalachian mountains.
Close up of a perched Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped chickadees generally have more contrasting plumage. Some of their wing feathers have white tips, which are more contrasting than that of the Carolina chickadee. The difference is subtle and only really applies to fresh adult plumage.
Overall, the Black-capped chickadee has bolder, more saturated plumage. Their backs may have a dark green tinge that the Carolina chickadee lacks. By late spring, both the Black-capped and Carolina chickadee’s plumage fade somewhat, and these differences become less pronounced.
Both chickadees have black caps and bibs with white cheeks. Again, the Black-capped chickadee has greater contrast, whereas the Carolina chickadee’s cheeks gradually fade against the black. Where their throat and chest divide, the Carolina chickadee has a relatively straight line, whereas the Black-capped has an uneven line, but it can be a useful minor point to look for.
Carolina Chickadee eating bird seed
Black-capped chickadees have a shorter typical song which usually contains just two or three syllables see-bee or see-be-ee. The see is much higher in pitch. Conversely, the Carolina chickadee has a four-syllable song that sounds like see-bee-see-bay. Here, the first and third syllables are highest in pitch. The Black-capped chickadee’s voice is also lower and fuller than the Carolina chickadee.
However, where Black-capped and Carolina chickadees meet, they can learn each other’s songs which renders this form of identification quite useless! For example, most Carolina chickadees sing Black-capped songs in Pennsylvania, and about 60% sing both Black-capped and Carolina songs. This intermixing of songs causes chickadees to sing strange mixes of each other’s songs, leading to increased hybridization.
Black-capped chickadees are the braver, bolder, and more approachable of the two birds. They’ll happily roam within a few feet of a person, especially if they’re feeding. On the other hand, Carolina chickadees are shyer and tend to restrict themselves to their deciduous forest habitats.
A black-capped chickadee foraging for food
The visual difference between male and female Carolina and Black-capped chickadees is tiny for both species. Some male Black-capped chickadees may have brighter cheeks and bibs than the females, especially during the breeding season, but this is far from assured.
There are some key behaviors to take into account, though. Firstly, the females typically build the nest for both species. They also partake in what’s called ‘courtship feeding’ and beg the males for food. Once the eggs are laid, the female incubates them while the male stands guard and defends the territory. The male territorial song is slightly different from their typical song and usually involves the syllables fee-bee-bee.
Carolina Chickadee perched on a branch
Carolina and Black-capped chickadees are not particularly related, but they do frequently hybridize where their populations converge. For example, in the Appalachians, Black-capped chickadees breed at higher elevations but may descend to forage, which is when they come into contact with Carolina chickadees.
Black-capped chickadees usually migrate south during the winter, so contact during the breeding season itself may be fleeting for most populations. However, contact does occur all year round in a narrow strip between Kansas and New Jersey.
Identifying a hybrid is an exceptionally difficult task. Therefore, one of the main giveaways is the hybrid song, which differs somewhat from either a Carolina or Black-capped chickadee song.
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