Or, Hello Cutie!

Poecile atricapillus
\pō-ə-'sīl ā-tri-'kap-il-əs\: A common "bird-feeder bird" of woodlands, known for its 'chick-a-dee-dee-dee' song and general cuteness.

The black-capped chickadee may be considered winter's ambassador for Hudson Valley Hikers. You've almost certainly seen and heard these perky little birds while walking past or through a snowy woodland near your home. Even if you haven't, you can be certain that they've seen and heard you.

Black-capped chickadees are bold, and if you'll pause for just a moment, they'll often draw near to examine you more closely. Here's a few ways to examine them, while they examine you.

By Sight

Identify the Black-capped Chickadee

Identify the Black-capped Chickadee

You'll easily recognize the Black-capped chickadee by sight. They have black 'caps,' black necks ('bibs' in birder-speak), and white pizazz stripes across their cheeks (birder-speak='napes'). Ther undersides are generally white-ish, with tan ('buffy') flanks. Seen from above, their wings and tails are mostly black, with an occasional flair of white.

By Sound

Before you read further -- What does this sound like to you?

Lots of people use different mnemonics for this call. I think he's saying 'cheese-burg-er.' What did you come up with?

If you live in a place where the trees are taller than you (like most of us in the northeast), then you'll likely hear this little guy before you see him. When you answer a phone call, you often know who's calling by their voice. Birds have 'voices' just like your friends and family. Can you recognize the black-capped chickadee's voice when he scolds, 'chips' softly, or chatters with his friends?

By Behavior

Fluffed up for winter

Fluffed up for winter

During the breeding season, these birds are territorial, but in winter, you'll see them in small flocks foraging for seeds and berries together. They constantly communicate to each other—including letting others know that you're there. By traveling in flocks, they increase their chances of avoiding predators and finding food (more eyes to watch out!).

They can also look like (adorable) fat little birds when they fluff themselves up on a branch, bracing for the cold. Just like your winter 'puffy,' the trapped air between their feathers keeps them much warmer. At night, they can decrease their body temperature 10-15°F, inducing a controlled hypothermia as they shelter themselves in a tree cavity.

Winter woodlands.  Minnewaska State Park.

My favorite time to watch them is when they are crossing an open path. They'll fly across one by one to join their flock. Quick and spunky, they may fly right up to a nearby branch to examine you, turning and cocking their heads sideways, just as you might if you saw an odd woodland creature...

Winter's a great time to get outside! Bundle up and say 'Hello!' to these cuties. If you have binoculars, bring 'em, though they probably won't be necessary to get a few close-ups.


Blog post and Minnewaska winter photo by Kali Bird.  Black-capped Chickadee photos by David Mitchell.  Bird calls are clips from those collated by Donald and Lillian Stokes as part of their excellent Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region.