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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Carolina Chickadees are year-round residents that brighten the dreariest of days

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series about small songbirds most often seen around bird feeders in rural and suburban areas of Kentucky during the late fall and winter.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) is a cheerful little bird that brightens up even the dreariest cold days.

The Carolina Chickadee is a permanent, year-round resident of Kentucky and a frequent visitor to backyard bird feeders. (Photo by Dan Pancamo)

They swarm backyard bird feeders, darting in to grab a black oil sunflower seed from a hanging feeder, then fluttering off to stash it for later.

They also readily feed on suet cakes, typically hung in flat, wire cages. This high energy formulation of animal fat, berries and seeds attracts insect-eating birds, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, the Carolina wren, Tufted titmouse, and Brown creeper.

In winter, Carolina Chickadees live in flocks of two to eight birds and defend their territories from other flocks.

Size and Coloration

Adults are very small, less than five inches long head to tail and they weigh less than a half ounce.

Their colored plumage is distinctive, a black cap and bib, with white cheeks. Their breast is white and their backs are gray. They have a short black bill, short dark wings and a moderately long tail.

Range and Distribution

The Carolina Chickadee is a permanent, year-round resident of Kentucky, common statewide, according to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, by Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr.

Along the crest of the Appalachians, the Carolina Chickadee’s range overlaps with the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), a northern species that has a larger, rounded head and brownish sides. (Photo provided)

Their breeding range includes most of the Southeast and lower Midwest, extending from Maryland southward along the Atlantic Coast, west through most of Ohio and Indiana, southern Illinois, Missouri and into Oklahama, south to Texas, and east along the Gulf Coast states to northern Florida.

Along the crest of the Appalachians, the Carolina Chickadee’s range overlaps with the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), a northern species that has a larger, rounded head and brownish sides, but otherwise similar colored plumage. Where their ranges overlap, the two species hybridize. Both are members of family Paridae, which includes chickadees and titmice, formerly classified in the genus Parus.

The Carolina Chickadee was first described by John James Audubon in 1834.


In Kentucky they live in a wide range of habitats from large tracts of contiguous forest, to semi-open lands, frequenting woodland edges, woodlots, farmlands, suburban backyards and forested parks in cities.

Food Habits

Their summer diet consists mostly of insects — caterpillars, moths, beetles, ants, grasshoppers, aphids, and spiders.

In fall and winter they eat weed and tree seeds, berries, and small fruits.

Reproduction and Nesting

Carolina Chickadees are cavity nesters, usually in holes in trees five to 15 feet above the ground. (Photo by Marshall Faintich)

Carolina Chickadees often mate for life.

Pairs form in the fall and remain together as part of the winter flock. When flocks break up in late winter, dominant males establish nesting territories.

They are cavity nesters, usually in a hole in a tree, typically an enlargement of a small natural cavity in dead wood, sometimes old woodpecker holes or nest boxes, five to 15 feet above the ground.

The female builds the nest, with a foundation of bark strips or sticks, lining it with moss, plant down or animal hair.

In Kentucky, clutches of eggs are laid beginning in early April, with a peak at the end of the month into May.

Nests are usually located within the forest interior, or along a woodland edge.

Clutch size is about five white eggs, with fine dots of reddish brown around the larger end. Incubation is by the female, and lasts about 11 to 13 days.

Adults disturbed in the nest cavity makes a loud hiss like a snake.

Both parents feed their nestlings, and young leave the nest about 13 to 17 days after hatching.

The Carolina Chickadee is a friendly bird that’s curious about humans, and everything in their territory. They have been known to land on a bow, or rifle held by a deer hunter sitting motionlessly in a treestand.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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