Range: central Alaska to Newfoundland, south to N. California, N. New Mexico, and W. North Carolina. Characteristics: black cap and bib, white cheeks and breast, gray back, buff sides, wing feathers edged with white.
This gentle little bird takes its name from its clearly enunciated call note, chick-a-dee-dee- dee. With the approach of spring it also whistles a plaintive, high-pitched fee-bee. Sometimes two blackcaps whistle a fee-bee duet, the second bird answering the first a tone lower.
Blackcaps are year-round residents in the northern states and Canada. They rove the winter woodlands in small flocks, minutely examining bark, twigs, and branches for spider eggs, cocoons, and other dormant insect life. They can usually be found with woodpeckers, nuthatches, brown creepers, and kinglets. The chickadees can easily be distinguished from the other small birds. Their white cheeks shine out, separating the solid black cap above from the fringed black bib below; their backs are gray.
In summer they feed mainly on insects, seeds, wild berries, and other fruits. Because they can alight upside down on the underside of a twig and perform similar gymnastics, they often find food missed by other birds.
The blackcap ranks as the most trusting and least pugnacious bird among those that visit feeding stations. It feeds in amity, yielding to bullies without argument and returning unobtrusively when the way is clear. At the same time this amiable bird wages incessant war on insect pests. Maine and Massachusetts have named it their state bird.
At the start of the spring courting season blackcaps grow agitated and begin their fee-bee song. Gradually the flock breaks up as the birds pair off. To build a nest both sexes work at chipping out a cavity in a dead stub. The female lines the nest with moss, plant down, feathers, animal fur, and insect cocoons. She lays five to eight white eggs speckled with reddish brown and incubates them for about 12 days.
The young birds soon may weigh as much as or more than their hardworking parents, who deplete their own strength by feeding the offspring. Blackcaps raise one or two broods each season; some adults remain mated for life.
Fast-moving hawks prey on chickadees, but the little birds are so quick and alert that they often escape. Sometimes they dive for cover in a network of evergreen twigs.
For some people, the chickadee has become their favorite bird at the feeding station.