ID Challenge: Mountain vs Black-capped vs Carolina Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It’s a cold, grey, windy day today and my yard is awash in activity. My bird feeders especially are getting a workout with several new visitors this year, including a Mountain Chickadee. Mountain Chickadees aren’t uncommon along the Front Range, but they’re usually found in the foothills and mountains where there are an abundance of conifers rather than in my lower elevation deciduous-tree-dominated suburban neighborhood.

I was first alerted to my new guest by its scratchy “chicka-dee-dee” call, like a Black-capped Chickadee (a year-round resident in my neighborhood) with a sore throat. For comparison, here’s the Black-capped Chickadee’s call.

Black-capped Chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Other than their calls, Mountain Chickadees are fairly easy to differentiate from Black-capped Chickadees. The most obvious visual difference is the Mountain’s bold white eyebrow, which makes it a little angry-looking. The Mountain is also usually a lot greyer, with very little if any buffiness on the underparts and less white edging on the wings.

Although my area of Colorado is only home to Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, the true ID challenge is between Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. Carolina Chickadees are slightly smaller than Black-capped Chickadees and are more of a southeastern US bird. They were my backyard chickadee in Virginia.

Carolina Chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Like the Mountain Chickadee, Carolinas are greyer than the Black-capped with little white wing-edging and not as much buffy coloring on their underparts. Their white cheek patch is greyer toward the back of the head and their black “bib” is smaller than the Black-capped with well-defined edges. There is also much less white edging on the outer tail feathers in Carolina Chickadees.

Probably the easiest way to distinguish between the Carolina Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee, however, is by voice. The song of the Black-capped Chickadee is usually a 3-note “Hey sweet-ie” whereas the Carolina’s song is usually a a 4-note song: “Fee bee fee bay.” The Carolina Chickadee also tends to have a faster call. But don’t worry, the two look-alikes only share territory in a small band roughly shown on the map below.

Map showing zone of overlap (black line) between Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. http://static.birds.cornell.edu/pfw_fr/AboutBirdsandFeeding/chickadeeIDtable.htm
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