Vocalizations and Singing Behavior in the Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile Atricapillus)

Black-Capped Chickadee Spectrogram

Black-Capped Chickadee Spectrogram                                                                                             Retrieved from: http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/birdsongs/index.html

Image, 2009, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

Retrieved from: http://ridgefieldbirds.com/TheRefuge/Birds/ridgefield_NWR_black-capped_chickadee.htm


Generic Black-Capped Chickadee Song:

Generic Black-Capped Chickadee Call:

Song, Call Types, and Vocalization Behavior:

Most adult chickadees have no less than 16 different vocalizations. The following is a list of names for the different vocalizations which have been identified in the Black-capped chickadee (Foote et al. 2010).

  • 1 Gargle- An aggressive, rapid, vocalization that is very complex and varies greatly between different populations of Black-capped Chickadees.
  • 2 Faint Fee-Bee- Similar to the fee-bee vocalization but is faint in comparison. Produced by both males and females around their nests and to their young.
  • 3 Subsong- A vocalization produced by fledglings that help in the process of learning and acquiring song. A faint, melodical vocalization that contain bits of developed adult song in addition to other notes and tones.
  • 4 Chick-a-dee- Vocalization produced year round but especially in fall and winter. This vocalization is complex, variable, and is produced by both males and females. Produced during mobbing, used to maintain flock cohesion, and used to communicate information regarding things such as predators or food sources.
  • 5 Broken Dee- Produced only by females during the breeding season for the purpose of soliciting feeding from mates.
  • 6 Variable See- Produced by both genders and is used during the nesting season around the act of copulation.
  • 7 Begging Dee- Used by fledglings to obtain food from parents.
  • 8 Hiss- A defensive vocalization used in combination with wing slapping when a chickadee is cornered or threatened. Usually produced during the breeding season.
  • 9 Snarl- A threatening vocalization produced during fighting.
  • 10 Twitter- Also used in confrontations but also when a male provides food to a female during the nesting season.
  • 11 Squawk- A vocalization produced by parents around the nest and fledglings.
  • 12 Distress Call- Vocalization used by fledglings to signify danger, frighten a threat or predator, and warn other chickadees of threat.
  • 13 Fee-bee- This vocalization is generally uniform and consistent throughout most Back-capped chickadee populations and is used for the purpose of broadcasting territorial claims and attracting mates. Produced mostly by males.
  • 14 High Zee- An alarm call produced when a predator attacks and is identified. Used mostly be males. Causes surrounding chickadees to freeze until provided with another vocalization that signifies that the threat has left.
  • 15 Contact Call- Used year round and by both genders for the purpose of broadcasting location to surrounding chickadees.
  • 16 Flight or restless note- Like contact call (possibly a variation of the contact call) but used when a flock is about to take off and move.

(Foote et al., 2010)

Mobbing or distress calls are one type of alarm call used by Black-capped Chickadees for the purpose of fighting off predators and threats. Mobbing calls and behaviors are initiated when one or more Black-capped chickadees in an area spot a predator or threat and let out a high pitched shrill call. The Chickadees in the area will first freeze in motion, then band together and harass the identified predator or threat. The mobbing calls will communicate information about the predator and determine the intensity of the mobbing response. (Foote et al. 2010)

Additionally, humans can impact chickadees and their vocal behavior through anthropogenic noise, or noise derived from human activity. If a population of black-capped chickadees lives in an environment heavily populated with humans, anthropogenic noise can force the chickadees to sing and call at higher frequencies in order to be heard above the noise pollution. (Proppe et al., 2012)

In Black-capped chickadees, a male’s quality and consistency of song will be influenced by habitat and social rank (Grava et al., 2013). In a study conducted by Grava et al. (2012), it was found that habitat has an impact on vocalizations and reproductive success in populations of Black capped chickadees. In this study, it was found that birds in a young forest sang less and had less reproductive success than those birds inhabiting mature forests. The finding of this experiment suggest that habitat influences the consistency of internal song structure (Grava et al., 2012).

Females are also known to produce song; however, their vocalizations differ from those produced by males. There is a general difference between the fee-bee song of males and females, and in addition, females have less variation in their fee vocalizations. There is a decrease in the frequency of the fee note between males and females. Therefore, the fee vocalization can be used as a sex identifier. (Hahn et al., 2013)

Dialects: Kroodsma et al. (1999) studied the variation in the black-capped chickadee’s song based on geographic location and found that dialects exist. They looked at chickadees on islands off of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts mainland, Washington, and Oregon. The distinct variations in song are particularly apparent in comparing mainland chickadees with those on islands. There are even multiple dialects on the same island for the populations studied.

Learning and Song Acquisition in the Black-Capped Chickadee: 

Vocalizations in the first 4 to 5 weeks of baby black-capped chickadees’ lives are simple but grow more complex with time. Calls produced during this time are generally for the purpose of acquiring or begging for food from parents. However, the three vocalizations young are know to be able to produce are subsong, begging vocalizations, and distress calls. Generally, developed/adult vocalizations can first start to be observed in young at about 30 to 40 days from birth. In this species, song has been shown to be learned. Fledglings begin learning by singing a variety of different notes and syllables which gradually develop into typical, well developed, black-capped chickadee vocalizations. (Foote et al. 2010)

The FoxP2 gene has been studied and identified as a gene which is crucial to the learning and production of song. It is thought that the FoxP2 gene allows for plasticity in song learning and production. Males tend to have a higher concentration of the FoxP2 protein, suggesting that males may be more adept in learning and producing song. Additionally, studies have shown that chickadees are open ended learners, maintaining the ability to learn and acquire song throughout their lives. (Phillmore et al., 2014)

 Proposed Future Research

There could be more studies done regarding female song: when is it learned, how quickly is it learned, what are more similarities and differences between male and female song. These should be done in the form of field studies to get a better idea of female song acquisition without unintended interference introduced by controlled experiments in the lab. After initial field experiments have been completed, controlled experiments created in a lab may help glean specific, more detailed or concentrated information regarding this topic.

Phillmore et al. (2014), encourages more research on if FoxP2 is associated with greater plasticity of vocalizations. Further research should also be done to determine what effects the changes in pitch from anthropogenic noise will have on black-capped chickadees in the evolutionary timeframe. Could this lead to speciation after enough time? Additionally, more research in the variation of plumage would help to distinguish subspecific differences. It would also be beneficial to see how the reproductive success of the Black-capped Chickadee changes from location to location. Finally, studying the key developmental stages of the life of a chickadee would provide more data for future work. (Foote et al., 2010)


  • Foote, D. J. Mennill, L. M. Ratcliffe and S. M. Smith. (2010). Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039
  • Grava, T., Grava, A., & Otter, K. (2013). Habitat-induced changes in song consistency affect perception of social status in male chickadees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 1699-1707. doi:10.1007/s00265-013-1580-z
  • Grava, T., Grava, A., & Otter, K. (2012). Vocal performance varies with habitat quality in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). Behaviour, 149, 35-50.
  • Hahn, A., Krysler, A., & Sturdy, C. (2013). Female song in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus): Acoustic song features that contain individual identity information and sex differences. Behavioural Processes, 98, 98-105.
  • Kroodsma, D., Byers, B., Hill, C., Farrington, J., Gill, F., Stoddard, P., & Wilda, K. (1999). Geographic Variation in Black-Capped Chickadee Songs and Singing Behavior. The Auk, 116(2), 387-402.
  • Phillmore, L., MacGillivray, H., Wilson, K., & Martin, S. (2014). Effects of Sex and Seasonality on the Song Control System and FoxP2 Protein Expression in Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Hailfax, Nova Scotia. doi:10.1002/dneu.22220
  • Proppe, D., Avey, M., Hoeschele, M., Moscicki, M., Farrell, T., Clair, C., & Sturdy, C. (2012). Black-capped chickadees Poecile atricapillus sing at higher pitches with elevated anthropogenic noise, but not with decreasing canopy cover. Journal of Avian Biology, 43, 325-332. doi:10.1111/j.1600-048X.2012.05640.x
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1 Response to Vocalizations and Singing Behavior in the Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile Atricapillus)

  1. Gloria says:

    Excellent work.

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