Poecile atricapillus septentrionalis

Status:  Fairly common regular resident statewide. Fairly common winter visitor statewide, common Missouri River Valley counties.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM6484, Nov 1893 Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy: The genus Poecile, previously a sub-genus within Parus, was raised to generic status by Banks et al (1997) based on genetic studies by Gill et al (2005) and Slikas et al (1996).

Pyle (1997) recognized 10 subspecies in three groups: Northwestern, Interior Western including subspecies that might occur in Nebraska septentrionalis from southern Yukon and northeast Colorado east to central Manitoba and central Kansas, and garrinus from central Idaho to south-central Montana south to southeastern Utah and central New Mexico, and Eastern, including subspecies atricapillus from southeast Manitoba to eastern Kansas east to Prince Edward Island and northern New Jersey.

Two subspecies have been reported in Nebraska: eastern atricapillus breeding in southeastern Nebraska (“Omaha”, AOU 1957), and septentrionalis, the Rocky Mountain subspecies, breeding essentially across the state. Bruner et al (1904) stated: “In extreme eastern Nebraska an occasional chickadee is found nearer to atricapillus than [septentrionalis], but such are not plentiful and most of the eastern Nebraska birds are intergrades.”

Resident: Most Black-capped Chickadees breeding in Nebraska are resident, as indicated by banding studies. Of 78 Nebraska banding records examined for various times of the year, all recoveries were at the place of banding (Patuxent Banding Lab data); a similar result was noted by Brown et al (1996) in Keith Co.

Breeding birds are distributed in riparian corridors throughout the state but are least numerous in the southwest and Panhandle; the BBS Summer Distribution Map for 2007-2013 shows virtual absence of this species in the western Sandhills, southern Panhandle, and Rainwater Basin, areas where riparian woodlands are lacking. In the Rainwater Basin, Jorgensen (2012) noted the species is “fairly common along the watercourses that intersperse the RWB; absent in most of the RWB.”  This status was similar to that which Tout (1902) observed as he mentioned that chickadees “are not found away from streams” in York County.  Black-capped Chickadee distribution, particularly in areas with marginal habitat, was likely reduced by the effects of West Nile Virus (see Comments, below).

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Nest Building: 2-10 Apr
    Copulation: 13 Apr
    Eggs: 31 Mar-27 May
    Nestlings: 11 Apr-15 Jun
    Fledglings: 1 May-23 Jun

Spring, Fall: Long-distance movements of Black-capped Chickadees do occur; these involve mostly young birds undergoing a post-fledgling dispersal (Foote et al 2020). In addition, movements occur irregularly every 2+ years; these events are best termed “irruptions” rather than true migration, and likely result from a decrease in food resources following a period of higher food availability that resulted in a high level of breeding success (Foote et al 2020). High Counts (below) appear to reflect this, as peaks occur in Apr and Sep.

  • High counts:
    • Spring, east: 44 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 1 Apr 2017, 37 at DeSoto NE|WR, Washington Co 10 Apr 2021, 35 at Fontenelle Forest 3 Apr 2010, 34 near Plainview, Antelope Co 19 Mar 2019, and 25 at Fontenelle Forest 22 Apr 2016.
    • Fall, east: 26 at Wilderness Park, Lincoln, Lancaster Co 17 Sep 2016, 25 at Fontenelle Forest 17 Sep 2016, and 25 at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Douglas Co 25 Nov 2017.
    • Spring, west: 29 at Gilbert-Baker WMA, Sioux Co 29 Mar 2020.
    • Fall, west: 37-42 in Sowbelly Canyon, Sioux Co 24 Aug-19 Oct 2019, 27 there on 3 Sep and 27 Sep 2017, 25 at Chadron SP, Dawes Co 26 Sep 2017, and 23 in Sowbelly Canyon, 22 Aug 2020.

Winter: In Nebraska, CBC data show a far more even distribution of chickadees in winter than that indicated by BBS data in summer, as well as a concentration in the east. It is generally assumed that birds from further north winter in Nebraska (Rapp et al 1958, Johnsgard 1980), and indeed chickadees are more common in winter in the northwest (Rosche 1982). Recent midwinter tallies in Sowbelly Canyon and Ponderosa WMA were 93 on 6 Jan 2021 and 74 on 30 Dec 2020 respectively.

Chickadees also become noticeable at locations where they are not conspicuous in summer, especially where feeders are provided. Furthermore, measurements of netted birds at Bellevue, Sarpy Co during winter 2003-2004 indicated an influx of the subspecies septentrionalis (Betty Grenon, Rick Schmid, personal communication). Foote et al (2020) noted that septentrionalis “occasionally wanders south in winter.”

Highest CBC counts are at Omaha, Douglas Co, where 822 were counted 1987-88 and 657 in 1989-90.

  • High counts: 50 at Arbor Lodge SHP, Otoe Co 20 Feb 2017.

Comments: Black-capped Chickadees declined sharply over most of Nebraska around 2002-2003 coincident with the arrival of West Nile Virus, providing strong circumstantial evidence for the cause of the decline.  BBS trend analysis show the species declined statewide at an annual rate of -5.66 (95% C.I.; -10.48, -1.12) during 2003-2013 (Sauer et al 2014). However, definitive evidence of a link was limited initially (Nick Komar, personal communication), but subsequent studies have shown West Nile Virus to be linked to declines in numbers of chickadees and other species (LaDeau et al 2007, Kilpatrick et al 2007).

Even though declines were noted over most of the state, the numbers of Black-capped Chickadees recorded on CBCs in the Missouri River Valley remained near average during the early to mid-2000s.  Suggested explanations for the apparent lack of chickadee declines in this region included birds moving in during winter from elsewhere (see above) or some degree of immunity in Missouri River Valley birds that might have been previously exposed to West Nile Virus (Tom Labedz, personal communication). In addition, variations in the prevalence of West Nile Virus across Nebraska may have been associated with variations in mosquito species diversity and abundance (T.J. Walker, Tony Leukering, personal communication, Jorgensen 2016).  Jorgensen (2016) presented data from the Centers for Disease Control that showed the highest rates of West Nile Virus incidence in the United States included most of western and central Nebraska, but incidence was less in the southeast. Differential West Nile Virus incidence in humans was attributed to weather and climate cycles that influence the abundance of Culex mosquitoes, an important disease vector, on the Great Plains.

By 2009-2010 Black-capped Chickadee numbers appeared to be recovering in many areas of eastern and central Nebraska where declines had been previously observed, notably Lancaster Co; the Branched Oak Lake-Seward CBC averaged 169 chickadees in its first 10 years, but only 23.5 from 2003 through 2008. However, the 17 Dec 2009 CBC there had 66, and 97 were counted 16 Dec 2011. The “comeback” was well-documented by meticulous tracking of chickadees on many outings in 2012 by Larry Einemann, who found chickadees on 50 out of 72 trips, where in the previous several years none had been found on similar numbers of trips.  BBS trend analysis for the period 2005-2015 suggests an annual increase of 2.68% per year (95% C.I.; -1.89, 7.79) compared to the sharp decline noted above for the years 2003-2013 (Sauer et al 2017).

Chickadees re-appeared in 2012 in a few western locations after long absences: since 2003 near North Platte, Hall Co, 2004 north of North Platte, Lincoln Co, and “for a few years” in Scotts Bluff Co.  On the other hand, in parts of central Nebraska relatively low numbers of chickadees were observed in 2012; one at a Grand Island, Hall Co feeder 23 Aug was a “big deal” and two at another feeder there 26 Aug were the first there for several years. Also in 2012, one at Rowe Sanctuary, Buffalo Co 25 Sep was the first there for 10+ years. Further afield, in east-central Nebraska, two at a feeder in Dodge Co in 2012 were “like the good old days”, and a single there 21 Feb 2019 was “first for years”.

However, some areas in central Nebraska have been slow to recover or have suffered another recent decline. The Harlan Count Reservoir CBC, Harlan Co, averaged 99 per year 1996-2001 but only one was found on the 2018 CBC, following a new low of 12 in 2016. Surprisingly also, the Lake McConaughy CBC, Keith Co, found only one chickadee in its 30 Dec 2018 iteration; peak tally there was 84 in 2001. Numbers have not recovered on the Branched Oak Lake-Seward CBC; in the first 10 years of the count >100 chickadees were counted, but no count since 2002 has reached that level. Clem Klaphake provided a citation (, referring to Carolina Chickadee) that noted: “In gardens with less than 70% of native plants by biomass, chickadee populations crashed, because the insects they usually eat cannot live on nonnative trees and flowers” Applicability of this hypothesis in Nebraska is conjectural, however.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
SHP: State Historical Park
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed.  Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Banks, R.C., J.W. Fitzpatrick, T.R. Howell, N.K. Johnson, B.L. Monroe Jr., H. Ouellet, J.V. Remsen Jr., and R.W. Storer. 1997. Forty-first supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk 114: 542-552.

Brown, C.R., M.B. Brown, P.A. Johnsgard, J. Kren, and W.C. Scharf. 1996. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station area, Keith and Garden Counties, Nebraska: Seasonal occurrence and breeding data. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 23: 91-108.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Foote, J.R., D.J. Mennill, L.M. Ratcliffe, and S.M. Smith. 2020. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Gill, F.B., B. Slikas and F.H. Sheldon. 2005. Phylogeny of titmice (Paridae): II. Species relationships based on sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene. Auk 122: 121-143.

Johnsgard, P. A. 1980. A preliminary list of the birds of Nebraska and adjacent Great Plains states. Published by the author, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G.  2016.  Status review of the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) in Nebraska.  Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Kilpatrick A.M., M.A. Meola, R.M. Moudy, and L.D. Kramer. 2008. Temperature, viral genetics, and the transmission of West Nile virus by Culex pipiens mosquitoes. PLoS Pathogens 4:e1000092

LaDeau, S.L., A.M. Kilpatrick, and P.P. Marra. 2007. West Nile virus emergence and large-scale declines of North American bird populations. Nature 447: 710-713.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, J.E. Fallon, K.L. Pardieck, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W.A. Link. 2014. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2012 (Version 02.19.2014). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center 2014. Available from

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Slikas, B., F.H. Sheldon, and F.B. Gill. 1996. Phylogeny of titmice (Paridae): I. Estimate of relationships among subgenera based on DNA-DNA hybridization. Journal of Avian Biology 27: 70–82.

Tout, W. 1902. Ten years without a gun. Proceedings of Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union 3: 42-45.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021.  Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 8 Jun 2021