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.

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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 on the figure (right), most of the nest is built using coarse material, including a mix of twigs, dry grasses, 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, mammals 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. 

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 the 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 1 3/4 in. 

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 breath 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.

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