Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Blackcaps are a common typical warbler (Sylvia) on the rise in the UK, having experience an uncommon shift in migratory behaviour over the past 25 years. They are a lively species, with an air of elegance, expressing a plumage of simple muted colour. Observe a Blackcap in your garden, and note its chunky appearance. It is about the same size as a Chaffinch. Furthermore, it has been noticed that Blackcaps are lovers of towns and cities, very bossy and can be quite aggressive with other birds when feeding in the garden.

Both sexes are predominantly grey in colour, yet can be distinguished by the colour of their caps: males are easily identified by their striking black caps, while females are differentiated by their somewhat more muted chestnut brown caps. According BTO research, more males than females migrate to the UK over winter in a bid to establish their breeding grounds prior to spring the following year. However, asked whether or not there was a bias towards male Blackcaps, most respondents mentioned they saw no more than a single Blackcap in their gardens, so no statistically significant evidence was provided for any gender bias.

In the UK, Blackcaps are common birds, classified as Green Status by the RSPB. There are approximately 1,200,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

Blackcap diet

BTO Blackcap feeding study

BTO chart of Blackcap dietary habits. See more.

Blackcaps are avid eaters of mistletoe berries, the circular, creamy-white berries that are common at the end of autumn and throughout winter. This favoured food has led to an interesting outcome: the spread of mistletoe throughout the UK. How so? When Blackcaps eat these berries, the seeds get separated from the fruit. The consequence, of course, is the rapid spread of seeds, and ultimately the proliferation of mistletoe.

In the garden, Blackcaps take to a variety of different foods; in a study conducted by the BTO, consisting of 2,854 responses (see chart above), there is a clear attraction for fat-based foods such as suet fats (suet cakes, fat balls), sunflower seeds as well as a variety of seed mixes. What is interesting is that the recent uptake of feeders in the garden seems to have had a startling impact on the migratory behaviour of Blackcaps.

It is understood that Blackcaps often see off other birds at the feeder with their aggressive manner, fending off the usual “top dogs” such as Robins. This overly enthusiastic method of defending the feeders could be related to the critical nature of their requirement for food over winter i.e. they will fight with greater verve because this food is of such critical importance to them.

Where to spot a Blackcap?

Blackcaps can be found in most places in the UK, although they are not generally observed in extreme northern areas of Scotland, including the islands, as well as the west coast of northern Ireland. In certain areas, such as central-coastal Wales, and the west of Scotland, they are just summer visitors. They prefer to stay in parks and gardens, do enjoy the comfort of towns and cities, and can be seen frequenting gardens across the country, especially over winter.

Blackcap song

The Blackcap is a renowned songster, famous for its warm, musical fluting notes; so much so, in fact, that it is often called the “northern nightingale” or “lesser nightingale” because of its attractive song. This song, which can last up to around two-and-a-half minutes, is given in bursts of thirty seconds, and terminates in a crescendo at the end of each burst.
According to Wikipedia, “Male blackcaps will sometimes sing even when incubating, especially with the second brood. This appears to be intended to maintain the bond with the female.

How has the migratory behaviour of Blackcaps changed?

Blackcaps have, as of late, spent more time in the UK over the winter months. They come primarily from Germany and north-east Europe. Having traditionally been summer visitors, and ultimately moving on to North Africa for the winter, a recent trend has seen German Blackcaps reside in England over the winter months, with the west of England receiving larger numbers of Blackcaps than any other part of the country. It makes ecological sense; there is a simple, short distance to travel from Germany to England, and the milder winters are relatively easy for Blackcaps to contend with. The increase of wild bird feeders has been acknowledged as having a direct influence on the Blackcaps’ “decision” to stay in the UK over winter.

A clear survival benefit has been noticed as a consequence of this change in migratory habit: Blackcaps that migrate just to the UK yield a greater number of eggs than those that migrate further south towards the Mediterranean and North Africa.

“Over the past 25 years, the Blackcap has experienced a profound migratory change.”

Blackcaps and culture: Storia di una capinera

The Blackcap has been the source of inspiration for a number of literary creations, most notably Giovanni Verga’s 1871 novel, Storia di una capinera, was influenced by the story of a Blackcap that was caged by children.

Having lost its freedom, the bird eventually dies. In the book, a nun diagnosed with cholera had to leave her convent, after which she subsequently fell in love with a family friend. Despite this, and on recovery from Cholera, she had to return to the convent, thus losing her freedom.

Giovanni Verga - Storia di una capinera

Interactive Blackcap

What is the difference between male and female Blackcaps?

Distinguishing male and female Blackcaps is quite straightforward: those with distinctly black caps are males, those with chestnut brown caps are females.

Female Blackcap

Female Blackcap

Female Blackcap

Male Blackcap

What food do Blackcaps eat?

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