Blackcap: the bird profiles


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Do all blackcaps have black caps? And what does a blackcap’s song sound like? Here’s everything you should know about the blackcap.

A blackcap perches on a branch
The blackcap is a frequent visitor of domestic gardens [Photo: Yuriy Balagula/]

Despite frequently visiting gardens, the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is often overlooked by garden owners. With an inconspicuous shape and the habit of hiding in bushes or trees, it is easy to miss this common songbird. Its chant, however, is anything but discreet; once heard, never forgotten. You’ll hear it everywhere in the summer months. With more gardeners setting up bird feeders, the blackcap, usually a winter migrator, now tends to spend winter in the UK. Read on to find out more about this fascinating songbird.

Blackcap: key facts

SizeAbout 13-15cm
WeightAbout 15-20g
Breeding seasonApril-June
LifespanApproximately 5 years
HabitatForests, parks and gardens with undergrowth
Food preferencesInsects, worms, snails, berries and fruits
ThreatsDecline in natural habitat and food supply

How to recognise the blackcap

Blackcaps are small, about the size of a tit, with short, pointed beaks. Their backs, tails and wings are grey, and contrast their somewhat lighter undersides. A singularly distinctive feature of the blackcap warbler is its vibrant cap: deep black for the male, and rust-brown for the female. Often, distinguishing between the different warblers can be tricky. Not so for the blackcap, whose striking headpiece is easy to spot. 

Male and female blackcaps stand by a puddle
Male blackcaps have a black cap, and the females a rust-brown cap [Photo: Esther Cardoso/]

What does a blackcap’s song sound like?

The blackcap’s song is loud, powerful and melodic – akin to a sweeter, less throaty version of the blackbird’s song. Its chorus is occasionally preceded by a subtler, chattering prelude, which is more difficult to distinguish. Soon enough though, the chorus revives and there will be no doubt who is singing.

As well as its characteristic song, the blackcap has another call that sounds like 2 pebbles knocking against one another. The hard “teck” sound is also a signal of danger when repeated over and over again: “Teck-teck-teck-teck-teck-teck”.

A blackcap sings from a branch
The blackcap’s serene song often sounds from bushes and trees [Photo: Karel Zahradka/]

How to recognise a young blackcap

Young blackcaps are similar to their mothers, even sporting the red-brown cap. You should be able to identify a young blackcap from an early age by looking out for this cap alone. By late winter, young males will display dark brown-black caps, and by the following spring are in full adult plumage.

A young blackcap perches
The young have, like the females, a red-brown cap

What is the perfect habitat for blackcaps?

The blackcap is found almost everywhere in Europe, with the exception of the northern-most regions and mountainous areas. It has even spread to large parts of northern Africa. As such, blackcaps occupy a wide range of habitats, from dense forests to parks and wild gardens. For the blackcap, a mixture of trees and well-grown shrub layers is most important.

Where do blackcaps build their nests?

Blackcap nests are found about a metre from the ground in dense bushes. A male begins building his nest in spring, upon his return from his winter residence. He will continuously interrupt construction and attempt to woo a mate with long chants. If he does manage to attract a partner, they will finish the nest together.

When is breeding season for blackcaps?

Blackcaps breed from April to July. Mothers lay 4 to 5 brown-white eggs, speckled black, and incubate them alternately with their partners. After about 2 weeks, the young birds hatch, and remain in the nest for another 12 days, fed with insects and berries. Even after the chicks are old enough to leave the nest, they will still be supported by their parents, who help with food supplies for some time. After this, the squabs are on their own, and the parents often begin a second brood.

A blackcap mother feeds chicks in a nest
The mother cares for her young [Photo: CezaryKorkosz/]

Where do blackcaps spend winter?

Blackcaps are migratory birds, leaving their breeding grounds in winter and returning again in summer. In the UK, blackcaps fly in from Germany or north-east Europe in summer. An increasing number of the birds are remaining in the UK, however, attracted by mild winters, food supplies (particularly from gardeners!), and the short distances to their breeding grounds. It seems that the birds who remain in the UK are gaining a competitive advantage over those who cross to continental Europe each year.

Help the blackcap!

Blackcaps frequently visit gardens. During breeding season, you should be able to hear their magnificent calls all day. Read on to find out how you can help these talented singers feel at home, and create a bird paradise.

What do blackcaps eat?

Blackcaps have an exceptionally varied diet. Their staple is small animals such as insects, their larvae, worms and snails. On top of these protein rich meals, the songbirds are partial to vegetarian food, such as berries and fruits. For this reason, blackcaps are happy to return from their winter residence as early as March, as they need not wait for insect supplies to bounce back after winter. In fact, if you leave your bird feeder out in March, you should be able to see blackcaps competing with blue tits and blackbirds for food.

A blackcap mother feeding young blackcap insect
Blackcaps also feed their young a variety of different insects

Which birdhouses are suitable for blackcaps?

Classic birdhouses, the kind you would use for blue tits and starlings, are unsuitable for blackcaps. The songbirds breed openly and are uninterested in enclosed nesting sites. If you would like to support the blackcap, focus on creating dense undergrowth. Avoid thinning your hedges and bushes, and with a little luck the songbirds will hide their nests in your undergrowth, close to the ground, where you can watch their breeding activities from afar.

How can I support blackcaps even more?

Since blackcaps have such a varied diet, there is a range of bird-friendly plants you can use to support the small birds. By designing an insect-friendly garden, you can even provide blackcaps with protein rich insects. Do avoid chemical sprays as they often contain toxic substances that not only decimate insect populations, but can poison the birds.

Many other garden birds will love a bird-friendly garden, such as the greenfinch. Get to know this perky little bird in our article.

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