Black-capped Chickadee or Mountain Chickadee

Updated: Jun 13

<iframe src='https://www.xeno-canto.org/132861/embed' scrolling='no' frameborder='0' width='340' height='220'></iframe>While not overly complicated, learning the differences between the two common species of Interior West chickadees can be challenging for new birders! Learn the simple tricks to separate the Black-capped Chickadee and Mountain Chickadee.

Mountain Chickadee vs Black-capped Chickadee


Black-capped Chickadee


The Black-capped Chickadee is an easy Parid (tits and chickadees) to identify thanks to its contrasting black cap and white cheek. These distinct features make this bird standout at the feeder, along with their excited vocals and fun antics. While the Black-capped Chickadee can be difficult to tell apart from the Carolina Chickadee, we will not address those identification cues today.



Mountain Chickadee


The Mountain Chickadee is a Parid of higher elevations in the intermountain west. The white superciliary stripe, and grayer overall appearance, are the major keys to making this identification. Few other chickadees will show white above their eye, though genetic mutations and hybrids can muddy the waters a bit. However, if you see a chickadee with a white "eyebrow," you can be almost certain you are seeing a Mountain Chickadee.


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Identification of the Black-capped & Mountain Chickadee - Visual

Visual keys are the "clues" received by your eyes and transmitted to your brain for aid in identification. Basically, if you can see it, it is a visual key.


Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee below a feeder
Black-capped Chickadee on a bird feeder
  • Black Cap

  • Buffy Sides

  • Extensive white edging on flight feathers and wing coverts


The extensive white in the wings and buffy sides give this species a brighter overall appearance than the Mountain Chickadee. The white "eyebrow," is the best visual cue for separating these two species.



Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee on a limber pine
Mountain Chickadee on a bird feeder. Note this Mountain Chickadee has some black in the fore part of the "eyebrow." It could be a result of a pigment mutation, or this bird could have Black-capped Chickadee genes from a previous hybridization.
  • Black Cap with a white supercilium

  • Grayer to buffy-ish sides

  • Extensive white edging on flight feathers and wing coverts


The duller sides and less white in the wings give this species a grayer overall appearance than the Black-capped Chickadee. Again, the white "eyebrow," is the best visual cue for separating these two species.




Identification of the Black-capped & Mountain Chickadee - Audible

Auditory keys are the "clues" received by your ears and transmitted to your brain for aid in identification. Basically, if you can hear it, it is an auditory key.



Black-capped Chickadee Song and Call


  • Song: Two-note whistle, often described as dee-dee.


  • Call: Often described as chickadee dee dee dee.




Mountain Chickadee Song and Call


  • Song: Three to six-note whistle, similar in sound to Black-capped Chickadee.


  • Call: Similar to Black-capped Chickadee, but sounds angrier or harsher than Black-capped.




Context

Contextual keys are the "clues" found in previously attained information. Contextual keys include known range, habitat, and behaviors.



Black-capped Chickadee Range and Habitat

Black-capped Chickadee Range Map

Habitat: Common in most woodland habitats. Less common at higher elevations.



Mountain Chickadee Range and Habitat

Mountain Chickadee Range Map

Habitat: Common in montane forests. Can be found at lower elevations at various times of the year, but this is less common.




Final Thoughts


The Black-capped Chickadee vs Mountain Chickadee identification may not be challenging for experienced birders, but new birders may struggle with this separation. I usually offer a mnemonic device to new birders, for help in remembering how to separate these species. The Mountain Chickadee with its white "eyebrow" looks angry that you forgot to fill your feeder, and its harsh/angry call helps to remind you of it.

Black-capped Chickadee vs Mountain Chickadee

Want to attract chickadees to your yard? Learn how here!



Credits/References

Black-capped Chickadee Range Map - Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, O. Robinson, S. Ligocki, B. Petersen, C. Wood, I. Davies, B. Sullivan, M. Iliff, S. Kelling. 2020. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2018; Released: 2020. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. https://doi.org/10.2173/ebirdst.2018
Mountain Chickadee Range Map - Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, O. Robinson, S. Ligocki, B. Petersen, C. Wood, I. Davies, B. Sullivan, M. Iliff, S. Kelling. 2020. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2018; Released: 2020. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. https://doi.org/10.2173/ebirdst.2018

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