He was educated at Brown University, Doctor of Science, 1913.
Served as associate curator of ornithology and mammalogy from 1888 to 1898 and as curator of ornithology, 1898 to 1942, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He retired in 1942 as curator emeritus. Chapman made excellent close-range photographic studies of birdlife, and beginning in 1887 conducted zoological explorations in temperate and tropical America. He originated what is known as the "habitat method" of exhibiting birds in their natural surroundings, and devised seasonal exhibits of birds. He is known as the originator of bird sanctuaries, and was responsible for the collection of about 750,000 specimens. Chapman was a fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union, of which he was president in 1911. He was the founder and editor of Bird Lore and the author of many books and publications including Hand Book of Birds of Eastern North America (1901).
Married Fannie Bates Embury, 1898.