January–February 2024

Minnesota Profile

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 

Bob Dunlap (DNR zoologist)

Chick-a-dee-dee-dee! If you’ve spent much time outdoors in Minnesota you’ve probably heard the signature call of one of our state’s most ubiquitous songbirds, the black-capped chickadee. 

Appearance and Behavior. With a boldly contrasting head pattern consisting of a black cap, black throat, and white cheek; gray back, wings, and tail; and whitish breast and belly flanked in peach, this little bird—about five inches in length—is one of our most frequently encountered feathered friends. Its plump body, long tail, and tiny beak help identify it by shape even from a distance. Rather social birds, chickadees most often forage in groups of at least a few individuals, and they regularly form mixed flocks with other species like nuthatches, vireos, and warblers. When they spot a predator like a hawk or owl, they frequently give their namesake calls in a flurry of “mobbing” behavior to alert other birds of the potential threat. Their vocal repertoire is extensive and includes many other calls including a two-note “spring’s here!” whistle, which is most often heard in late winter and spring as they establish territories. Their nests are constructed in the cavities of trees—often birches—that they excavate themselves, although they occasionally use existing cavities and even artificial nest boxes.

Distribution, Habitat, and Diet. Black-capped chickadees do not migrate south for the winter and are present year-round in the state. They live in or near wooded areas but sometimes wander into more open areas in search of insects and seeds, their main food sources. Found throughout Minnesota, including in urban and suburban areas, black-capped chickadees are frequent visitors to bird feeders, including those that offer both seeds and suet. Although feeding these birds makes it easier for us to encounter them, chickadees usually have no problem finding their own food in nature. Insects—especially caterpillars—make up most of the chickadees’ diets in the summer, whereas in winter they consume seeds and berries about as often as they do invertebrates.

Coping With Winter. Small birds like chickadees require special adaptations to survive cold winters. They frequently cache, or store, their food in places like tree bark crevices or small cavities; these stores serve as assurances of nourishment during lean times like the dead of winter. In addition, they can lower their body temperatures overnight to conserve energy, as well as produce heat by shivering. During especially cold nights, chickadees roost in tree cavities and other sheltered places for additional protection from the elements.