Black-capped Chickadee: Nest and Eggs

Black-capped Chickadee. Photo: Mick Thompson.

The Black-capped Chickadee is one of the most familiar and widespread North American birds. Chickadees are year-round residents and have a relatively short breeding season where they normally attempt just one brood. However, they can raise large single-broods for such a tiny bird. This article is intended to aid in identifying Black-capped Chickadee nests and eggs.

Black-capped chickadee breeding facts

Breeding Period Mid-April through Late July.
Nest type Cup with a 2 3/8 inches across and 1 inch deep.
Substrate & Location Nests are always built inside a cavity, usually 4-14 ft above the ground.
Cavity: The entrance hole has a diameter of 1 3/4 inches and is 5-inches deep.
Nesting ActivitiesBoth males and females excavate the cavity in 7 to 10 days. The female alone builds the nest in 1 to 2 weeks.
Egg DescriptionWhite to creamy-white with reddish-brown dots concentrated on the wide side of the egg.
Egg Length and width 0.65 in x 0.59 in.
Egg-layingIt begins a day or two after nest completion. Female lays one egg every day.
Clutch sizeNormally 6-8 eggs rarely up to 10 and 13 eggs.
Number of broodsSingle brood per year.
Incubation Period12-13 days.

Breeding range and habitat

The black-capped chickadee range, which is also the breeding range, encompasses a broad region ranging from the east to the west coast, roughly the upper 2/3 of the U.S. and most of Canada. Their range reaches as far south as the mountains of Tennessee and the Northern tip of New Mexico. Chickadees are found in various habitats, including deciduous and mixed forests, semi-open and disturbed woodlands, and cottonwood groves.

breeding range black capped chickadee
Breeding range of the Black-capped chickadee. Source: BirdsoftheWorld.org.

Migration and social behavior

Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents that stay near where they breed. During the winter months, chickadees form flocks composed of mated pairs, single chickadees, and youngsters. Flocks maintain a hierarchy where dominant pairs are above single adult birds, and these are above juveniles. Several other resident birds join winter chickadee flocks.

Breeding Period

Mated pairs begin to lay eggs as early as the second week of April. By late April, most pairs have started to lay eggs, but this may vary according to the region. Some pairs start laying eggs as late as the last week of May. Eggs begin to hatch by early May, and young chickadees can be seen through late July.

Black-capped Chickadee nest and eggs. Photo: Mary Brandt.

The appearance of Black-capped Chickadee’s nest

The only consistent part among Black-capped Chickadee nests is the cup size and depth. Chickadees fill up the nesting chamber with nesting material, making the size of the nest as variable as the size of the cavity in which the nest is built. The cup is built near the center or toward one side of the cavity. Small nesting cavities have a cup and little nesting material around them. 

typical nest black-capped chickadee

The female alone builds the nest. As noticed in the figure (right), most of the nest is built using coarse material, including a mix of twigs, dry grasses, and pieces of rotten wood mixed with wool and fur.

The cup is bordered with a mixture of twigs and soft materials such as wool. The cup’s interior is lined with hair, mammal fur, and feathers.  

The nest shown here was built in a bluebird nesting box. Chickadees filled up most of the space and built the cup on one side. Moss is frequently used as a top layer around the cup. 

See the Nest and Egg of the similar: Carolina Chickadee.

Black-capped Chickadee nesting habits

Black-capped Chickadees are obligate cavity nesters. They excavate their own cavities, usually in soft or rotten wood. Chickadees can also use abandoned cavities of small woodpeckers or other natural cavities. Some pairs enhance existing cavities to fit their needs.

Chickadees prefer to excavate their own cavities. Studies on nesting Black-capped Chickadees found that most (87%) nesting pair excavated their own cavity, and only 13% built nests in existing cavities.

Photo: Steve Meyer.

Black-capped Chickadees readily accept nesting boxes offered to them. They prefer artificial cavities in snags over conventional nesting boxes.

Breeding pairs seldom reuse the same cavity to renest and rather excavate a new one. However, when cavities are difficult to dig, or existing cavities are scarce, they reuse old cavities. 

Nesting cavity

Both males and females excavate the cavity to a depth of about 5 in. Cavities are typically located between 4 to 14 feet above the ground. Some pairs have nested in cavities nearly at ground level, particularly when cavities are scarce.      Excavating a cavity may take between 7 to 10 days. The entrance hole diameter is about 11/8 in. 

black-capped chickadee at cavity
Typical nest cavity. Photo: Tom Murray.

Nest building

The female chickadee builds a nest alone in 1 to 2 weeks.  A typical cup has a diameter of 2 3/8 inches and 1 inch deep. The male may assist the female in bringing her food while she is diligently gathering nesting materials.

Egg appearance

The eggs are oval-round in shape with an approximate length of 0.65 in and breadth of 0.59 in. Eggs are white to creamy white with reddish-brown spots, concentrated towards the wider side of the egg. There appear not to be many variations in the color pattern among Black-capped Chickadee eggs of separate regions.

Black-capped Chickadee, egg color pattern, and size.

Egg Laying

The female Black-capped chickadees start laying eggs as early as the second week of April. The initiation of the egg-laying period varies with temperature. In warmer years, egg-laying begins earlier. 

Egg-laying begins a day or two after the nest has been built, although some nesting material can be added during the egg-laying period. The female lays 1 egg every day, usually in the morning. 

Clutch size

Female chickadee typically lays clutches of 6 to 8 eggs. Some pairs have been known to lay up to 10 and 13-egg clutches. 

Incubation of the eggs

Once the female starts laying eggs, she roosts inside the nest but does not begin to incubate the eggs until she lays the next-to-last egg. The female does all the incubation, day and night, and only takes breaks during the day for basic needs. When she leaves, she covers the eggs with nesting material. On days with warmer temperatures, the female spends more time outside the nest than on colder days.

While the female incubates the eggs, the male brings food and feeds her while she sits on the eggs.

Incubation period

The female Black-capped Chickadee incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days before egg hatching. All baby chickadees hatch within a period of 12 to 30 hours.

References:

  • Albano, D. J. (1992). Nesting mortality of Carolina Chickadees breeding in natural cavities. Condor 94:371-382.
  • Picman, J. and J. C. Bellesisles. (1988). Interspecific egg pecking by the Black-capped Chickadee. Wilson Bulletin 100 (4):664-665.
  • Smith, S. M. (1974c). Nest site selection in Black-capped Chickadees. Condor 76:478-479.

LEARN MORE ABOUT BIRD NESTS AND EGGS:

33 thoughts on “Black-capped Chickadee: Nest and Eggs”

  1. Thank you… I found this to be very informative and helpful… I wondered where the chickadees went- after being here for a month! I believe they only had one offspring -in a little birdhouse on a 5 foot pole.

    1. Hello Me,

      They are around your house for sure. Depending on how old the young of the year is now, they may be still moving as a family unit, or the chick already split from its parents…but they are still around your area.

      Al.

  2. I was cleaning up my garden/yard and moved a small stump (about 16×24) that I keep moving around. It is too big to throw in the yard waste bin and I haven’t cut it up yet. Anyway, after I moved it so I could cut the grass in that area I noticed a little bird nest with three eggs in it.

    I moved the stump back to be in a similar spot to where it was and I saw what I think was a chickadee watching from my Japanese Maple about ten feet away. It did return to the nest after just a few minutes.

    I thought it was odd that the nest was built ‘on the ground’ but ‘under’ the stump. I mowed the area around the stump but left about 8′ by 12′ unmowed. The black headed parent bird (same one that was in the Maple tree) was in the nest when I started to mow but I didn’t see it when I finished. Before I mowed but after I moved the stump, I saw four other birds come to it’s calling. Three of them just the ‘brown’ version (no black head) and also one brown one with red feathers in the head area.

    Interesting to see them interact. Did I just destroy their family structure? I remember when I was a kid (a long time ago!) that the grown ups would say that birds will not come back to the nest if a human disturbs it.

    I will put up a barrier to give the little birds a chance at life if you think they could survive, just to keep all the neighbor cats and possums away from them.

    What do you think?

  3. Alfredo Begazo

    Hi Chris,

    I think you did well by trying to recreate the structure as you found it. That should work. Try not to do anything extra as this can attract predators that just go sniffing around seeing what is new there. The way it was when you found the nest should be fine.

    Good luck,
    Al.

    1. Hi Jo,

      Yes, the male does incubate and help raise the young until the young leave the nest. Even afterward, both parents assist the chick for a few weeks before they become nutritionally independent.

      Al.

  4. Gayle Kokolios

    I hung a chickadee bird house on my front porch last year. This afternoon I found a chickadee egg broken on the porch railing just underneath the house. I’m trying to figure out what happened? Could the mother bird have accidentally knocked it out or dropped it? It wasn’t there last evening when I was sitting out there.

    Thank you

    1. Hi Gayle,

      Hard to tell. Do you happen to have House Wrens in the area? They have been known to take chickadees’ eggs out of the nest to take over the nesting box. This is just a possibility. Grab a chair and observe the nesting box from a distance to see what is going in and out of the box.

      Good luck,
      Al

  5. Bruce Viehman

    I have a bird nesting in corner of porch. Nest is moss/mud. Bird has black cap, white chest, dark wings with slight wing bar, but legs are not black. Trying to determine what type bird it may be.

    1. Probably a Phoebe. They love corners up high and protected from wind and weather. We have a pair that build their nest on the top of our garage light just under the eve every year.

  6. I have a bird cam and have loved watching the progress of my Chickadee family. There were seven eggs but, I am at a loss to count beaks and wiggles at this point. Lots of feeding going on. How long until they fledge?

  7. Hi, I have Chicadees that built a nest inside the top of my outdoor fountain, I think. My question is if it rains, which it hasn’t done yet, are the eggs going to be ok. I’m afraid that the top part of the fountain, which looks like a pineapple will fill with water and the babies will not survive. I am not sure how far down the nest goes as I have stayed away from it, but the pump has a hose going through it and is hollow all the way down.

    1. Hi Debby,

      There should be some space created by nesting material, between the bottom of the box and the eggs. This is to say that the box can hold some water without affecting the eggs of babies.

      Only if it rains a lot, I would think the nest is at risk. I would recommend monitoring the nest if it rains a lot. If it looks like the bottom of the nesting box may be flooded elevate the nest or carefully drill a hole in the bottom for water to drain.

      Good luck,
      Al

  8. Hi. We have a chickadee nest in a decorative bird house in our yard. Was a surprise to us, as have never seen birds use this. The female appears to be laying on her back part of time however! There was a clutch of about 6 eggs. At times, we see her belly feathers, and the back side of wing tips and tail when she is laying this way. Other times, she appears to be sitting normally. Is this a thing with them?

  9. Hi, was wondering if the fledglings all leave the nest at the same time? Or what the average time between each leaving is? (Assuming they are all the same clutch.)

    1. Hello Tanya,

      Yes, chickadees tend to leave the nest in one morning. When there is differences in size, which implies that some are not developed enough to fly, smaller birds will stay longer in the nest. Usually 1-3 days longer.

      Al.

  10. Hi, a chickadee has made a nest in one of the potted plants in my porch. I was wondering if watering the plant (even a little) would disturb or harm the eggs? Can I water around the nest? I am fine with letting the plant die so that the birds can have their nest but if I can save them all that would be my preference. Thank you!

    1. Hello Angela,

      Bird likely nesting in the potted plant is Carolina Wren?? Yes, it is ok to water around the nest, which is likely to be above the dirt. Us little water more often to avoid flooding the nest’s content.

      Good Luck,
      Al

  11. At the beginning of your article you write that the Chickadee entrance hole is 1 3/4″ in diameter. 1 1/8″ entrance holes are large enough and safer for the birds.

  12. Black capped chickadees built a nest in a nest box and there are eggs in the nest – they were sitting on the nest until today, I have not seen them all day either in the box or on one of the trees near it – now Blue Birds are looking in the box to use – at what point do I know for certain the chickadees are either dead or have abandoned the nest?

    1. Alfredo Begazo

      Hello Beth,

      Good question. I would not know of a fixed time but a few days of absence. If the chickadees are just laying eggs (prior to active incubation) they can be gone for most of the day, but should be around. I would let nature run its course.

      It appears that there is a need for additional nesting boxes; adding one or two more may help.

      Good luck,
      Al.

  13. Hi,
    I have Carolina chickadees in a box in front of my house. Meant to take it down and did not expect any bird to use it as no one did last year. Once I heard house sparrows around I tried to make the hole smaller because it was not built for them. I didn’t realize the female was in there laying on eggs already. I fixed the hole but I don’t think they came back for at least 24 hours, and it was a cold night. Now she has been back on it, I would say at least 2 weeks but I wasn’t tracking it, just found her there today. Would they lay on them a long time even if not viable? Or would they know? Maybe she laid more? I plan to leave them alone, there is a string hanging out but looks ok, I don’t want to bother them unnecessarily.
    Thanks!

    1. Alfredo Begazo

      Hello Susane,

      Female chickadees will start incubating consistently after the last egg has been laid. Prior to that, eggs sit there through cold nights without any problem. Recently laid and unincubated eggs remain viable for a long time. Once eggs are incubated and the embryo has formed, a long time without incubation can cause problems.

      We don’t know when the female began to lay eggs. If it was early in the egg-laying period when you fixed the entrance hole, 24 hours is not a problem.

      If she is back and incubating for two weeks, it may be that eggs are about to hatch or have hatched. If you see an increase of activity with the parents going in and out the nest, then eggs have hatched.

      The female incubates the eggs only for so long. If eggs do not hatch, the pair may vary the eggs with nesting material and lay a new clutch on top of the old clutch.

      I hope the hatched,

      Al.

  14. Can a chickadee move its eggs to a new nest?
    A small bird made a nest in a garden planter 2 feet off the ground in the Seattle area. I am guessing it was a black capped chickadee(?) . Within an hour of my seeing the eggs, I returned to the nest location and saw that the 4 eggs were gone. Eggs description and nest design matches that of a black capped chickadee.

    Can a chickadee move its eggs ?
    Thank you

    1. Hello Richard,

      It is more likely that a predator found the nest and ate the eggs. Also, it is more likely that the nest was not of a Black-capped Chickadee since chickadees nest exclusively in cavities.

      Sorry to hear that the the eggs disappeared.

      Al.

  15. Rachel Hanson

    I have a nest in a flower pot about 5 feet up. It is in the back of the pot up against the house. Very excited to see.

  16. For over 10 years I had a lovely old blue bird box under my garage’s eave and every year the chickadees would return to it to nest. I had to move it to the other side of the house near my patio and the birdies still found it and have continued to return to it for the last five years. So, many generations of blackcaps, always cheerful and a delight to watch. Thanks for your musings. Very enjoyable.

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