Both black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees are active, perky birds that can be a delight to see and to have visiting a bird-friendly backyard, but how can you be sure which one you're seeing? These two species are nearly identical, but there are ways to tell them apart with careful observation.
Black-Capped Chickadee and Carolina Chickadee Identification Characteristics
When you spot a chickadee that might be either black-capped or Carolina, these characteristics can help you tell the two apart.
- Size: Black-capped chickadees are larger with an average size of 5.25 inches from bill to tail, while Carolina chickadees are 4.75 inches long. Judging bird size can be difficult, but if measurement comparisons can be made to branches, fence posts or feeder sizes, this can be a good clue about which bird is which.
- Tail Length: Black-capped chickadees have notably longer tails and may look somewhat disproportionate. Carolina chickadees have shorter tails, though a bird's posture and the viewing angle can make this field mark hard to determine with certainty.
- Cheek Color: The bright white cheeks of black-capped chickadees are a good field mark, while Carolina chickadees often have a gray wash on the rear of the auriculars, especially toward the nape.
- Flanks: Black-capped chickadees are more richly colored and have a strong, more extensive buff wash on the flanks, while Carolina chickadees have fainter coloration with less contrast to the belly and wings.
- Wings: Black-capped chickadees show bold white edges on their secondary feathers and on the primary feathers as well. Carolina chickadees, however, are much more gray on the wings without the edging on the secondary feathers, though they can still show some white edging on the primary feathers.
- Head Size: Black-capped chickadees may have a disproportionally large head and can seem overbalanced, while Carolina chickadees have a smaller head that is more suitable to their body size, giving them a more slender appearance.
- Throat Color: Both of these chickadees have a black throat, but black-capped chickadees have a more ragged, rougher edge where the black throat meets the white breast, especially on the corners. Carolina chickadees more frequently have a smoother, more defined separation between the two colors.
- Range: Range is the single best clue to separate these birds. While they prefer similar habitats, the black-capped chickadee's range is further north and spreads much further west, even to Alaska. The Carolina chickadee's range, however, is restricted to the southeastern and south-central plains of the United States, only going as far north as the Ohio River valley. As neither of these birds migrates regularly, vagrant sightings are minimal, but there is a small overlap range between the two species, and within that overlap it is necessary to investigate other clues to tell these two birds apart.
- Voice: Both of these chickadee species are vocal, and fortunately for birders who listen, their songs are sufficiently different to distinguish between them. The black-capped chickadee's song is a slow, lower pitched tune, while the Carolina chickadee has a distinctly faster, higher-pitched song that has a frantic pace. The black-capped chickadee's call note is just two syllables, while the Carolina chickadee's call is four notes. Either vocalization can help separate these two species, though indistinct calls in the overlap range can still be tricky to tell apart, and it is possible that young birds of one species may inadvertently "learn" the songs of the other species when they are raised in close proximity to one another.
Field Identification Tips for Chickadees
Both black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees are energetic, active birds. While they can be fun to watch, their fast behavior can also limit good views to only quick glances. To make the most of that glance…
- Observe the birds carefully from different angles to see field marks more clearly, preferable in bright light to see colors more easily.
- Try to identify them in fall and spring when their plumage is freshest; worn plumage is harder to distinguish.
- Take extra care to learn the birds' songs and practice birding by ear to tell the two species apart even without the best views.
Unfortunately, black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees will occasionally hybridize where their ranges overlap, which can add another layer of difficulty to proper identification. In sightings where the birds can't be seen or heard clearly, it is often the best course of action to simply enjoy them rather than stress over exactly which species is which. Both of these birds are fairly common and dedicated birders will have many opportunities to work out the proper identifications, and with practice, doing so will become easier and easier.
Photo – Black-Capped Chickadee © Scott Fleming
Black-Capped Chickadee and Carolina Chickadee Quick Reference
|Characteristic||Black-Capped Chickadee||Carolina Chickadee|
|Size||5.25 inches||4.75 inches|
|Tail Length||Longer tail||Shorter tail|
|Cheek Color||Bright white||White with a gray wash toward the nape|
|Flanks||Strong, extensive buff wash||Less extensive, more dull color|
|Wings||White edging on both primary and secondary feathers||Gray secondary feathers and minor white edging on primaries|
|Head Size||Large, disproportionate||Smaller, giving a slender appearance|
|Throat Color||Ragged edge where throat and breast meet||Smooth edge between throat and breast|
|Range||Larger range, further north and both east and west||Smaller range, confined to southeastern and south-central area|
|Voice||Lower pitch, slower songs and calls||Faster pace, higher pitch, more notes in calls|