The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #71: Figure Out What Kind Of Chickadees You’ve Got

Learn these seven species and you'll never go dateless again.

I’ve probably said this about every bird at one time or another, but this time I mean it: Chickadees are the best birds. They’re just the best. They’re cute. They’re cool-looking. They make a lot of noise to let you know they’re coming. No one has ever been disappointed to see a chickadee.

But how much do you really know about the chickadee you see in your woods or at your feeder? Do you know, say, which of the seven chickadee species found in the United States it happens to be? You don’t?! Do you realize how much cooler you’d be if you DID know? Maybe cool enough to finally make some headway with a certain special someone? Someone you’ve always had a crush on but aren’t sure whether they feel the same about you? Well, rest easy, Romeo, I’m here to help. Let’s get detailed about chickadees.

Beginning with some puerile humor.

American chickadees are a part of the Paridae family, a group of more than 50 small, stocky birds that you generally find in the woods eating seeds or insects. Paridae species are found throughout the northern hemisphere and Africa, but they’re only called “chickadees” here. Everywhere else they’re called—wait for it—tits.

Yes, giggle it out. It’s OK, I’ll wait.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo: Donald Dvorak/Great Backyard Bird Count

Done? Great—now let’s move along and douse our little giggle fest with the cold, sobering water of historical fact. The word “tit” has been used to describe any number of small animals, birds or otherwise—such as, for example, the Great Tits found in the U.K., or the Elegant Tits endemic to the Philippines (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)—going back as far back as the 1540s. The word is apparently unrelated to the slang term for “breast,” which only dates to 1928 (though variations on the word “teat” were found in Old English). So, anytime you feel a blush or giggle coming on because you have to talk about Coal Tits or something, just think of them as Coal Smalls and pull yourself together.

And just so we’re clear, the reason they’re chickadees here and tits everywhere else isn’t because our Puritan settlers couldn’t say such a naughty word. Actually, I’m not really sure why the change was made. John James Audubon referred to what we now call chickadees as “titmice,” another reference to their diminutive stature that ending up sticking for a few other American species in the Paridae family.  At some point some of these birds began being referred to as “chickadees” based on an imitation of a common call-note of the Black-capped Chickadee.

Black-capped Chickadee. Photo: Donald Grothe/Audubon Photography Awards

I, for one, am in favor of the name change to “chickadee”—however it may have happened—as it is much more fitting for this group of little birds. First of all, they’re a distinct group that deserve their own name—all the American chickadee species are round little birds with their faces quartered into black (or dark-colored) throats and caps, and bright white cheeks. Second, what a fun word! Say it: Chickadee! Chickadee! It’s an energetic, happy word, just like these birds. Tits be damned.

OK, now that we know that American chickadees are small, white-and-black-headed birds that are part of a worldwide family that is very seriously and un-funnily named tits, let’s move on to figure out which species of chickadee you’ve got near you. You’ve got to impress your crush, remember?

Like I said, there are seven different species of chickadees found in the United States, and chances are very good that no matter where you live, you’ve got at least one species nearby. Let’s start with the hardest to find, to get them out of the way.

Gray-headed Chickadee

This is an easy one. You do NOT live near this bird. No one does. Limited to river valleys adjacent to the mountains of northern Alaska, the Gray-headed Chickadee is maybe the hardest-to-find breeding bird in the country. The only way to find one is by taking a rubber boat down a river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, dodging wolves and grizzly bears and who knows what else. Trust me, that bird at your feeder is not a Gray-Headed Chickadee.

Mexican Chickadee

Do you live in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona or the Animas Mountains of New Mexico? You don’t? OK, well, then you aren’t seeing Mexican Chickadees. They’re a cute little species, but their American range only extends to those two ranges. Done.

Boreal Chickadee

Like the extremely similar-looking Gray-headed Chickadee, the Boreal Chickadee lives in the far north—the boreal forests, to be exact, which extend out of Alaska (thankfully) and across Canada, dipping into northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern New England. Boreal Chickadees are easily differentiated from the Black-capped Chickadee, which also lives in these places, by the brown cap that contrasts well with the black throat. I love Boreal Chickadees, primarily because when I see one it means that I am home in Maine. So, if you’re in northern New England or the upper reaches of the Great Lakes states, check for brown caps on those chickadees.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, northern California, or the Idaho panhandle, you might be neighbors with these guys. Chestnut-Backed Chickadees are our most garishly colored chickadee, with their back and sides painted with a lovely rusty chestnut. There may be other species of chickadee in those areas, but the reddish coloring is an easy giveaway.

Mountain Chickadee

If you live in the Rocky Mountains or any of the mountains farther west, you might have Mountain Chickadees. Good for you. Mountain Chickadees are easy to identify because they’re the only chickadee with a white eyebrow stripe just above their eye. You can’t miss it. “Is that a chickadee?” Your crush will say. “Yes,” you’ll reply, wisely, “and that white eyebrow stripe tells me it’s a Mountain Chickadee.” Your crush will be speechless with admiration.

Carolina Chickadee

If you live in the American South, Delaware or Maryland, you’ve got Carolina Chickadees. If you see a chickadee, it’s a Carolina Chickadee. Alright? But wait…

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee is our most widespread species, and looks nearly identical to the Carolina Chickadee. Black-caps are easily separable from the other chickadee species where their ranges overlap based on what I’ve written above, but in places where they overlap with Carolinas, things get real sticky. Both birds are gray backed, have some buffy wash on the sides, and have the classic black-and-white chickadee facial pattern. There are a few minor differences—Black-caps are about a half inch larger, have more white on the nape and in the wings—but those are tough to tell in the field.  One possible method of differentiation when you’re in the narrow zone of overlap between the two species — Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New Jersey — is their voice: The song of the Carolina Chickadee is (typically) a four-part, evenly-spaced set of high-pitched notes: “One Two Three Four.” The Black-capped song, on the other hand, is typically two notes: “One Two.”  

Learning those songs will be helpful, but still might not get you to an answer. In fact, if you’re seeing chickadees in the Black-capped/Carolina overlap zone you might not be able to land on a single species at all. Birds living close to each other are able to learn each others’ songs, so there goes that tip. And Carolinas and Black-caps in the overlap zone even mate with each other, producing hybrid offspring with traits of both species. Look, if Black-caps and Carolinas can’t even tell each other apart, what chance do you have? If you know you’re in the range of one or the other of these chickadees, you’re fine. If you’re in the overlap zone? Forget about it. Maybe use it as an opportunity to talk passionately to your crush about how love knows no bounds? Or maybe give a wink and ask if he or she would like to join you in forming an “overlap zone” of your own? No, don’t do that one.

So there you have it! Now you’re armed with some sexy knowledge that’ll make you irresistible to your unrequited love. I promise. Please invite me to your wedding.

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