Mountain Chickadee

Poecile gambeli

By Andy McCormick

  • Length          5.25 in
  • Wingspan      8.5 in 
  • Weight           0.39 oz
  • AOU Band code    MOCH

A white eye stripe on the Mountain Chickadee is unique among chickadees.

The white supercilium is a prominent field mark that separates the Mountain Chickadee from all other chickadees. This is probably best seen in spring when the feathers are fresh. The white is only the tip of otherwise black feathers and when worn later in the year, the white stripe will be fainter and more difficult to see (Alderfer). Consequently, at times the Mountain can be confused with the Black-capped Chickadee, its closest relative. 

However, the difference in the wing feathers provides another good field mark. The edges of the wing feathers are, “pale gray and inconspicuous in the Mountain and prominently white in the Black-capped” (Alderfer). The Mountain also has grayer underparts than the Black-capped (Dunne). 
Mountain resident

The Mountain Chickadees is a typical energetic tit that specializes in high altitude living. It usually nests between 8,000 and 10,000 feet (Bell and Gregory). Once it establishes a territory it will remain a resident bird of montane regions and does not migrate. Most Mountain Chickadees will stay in the same area for their entire life.

At times the range of Mountain Chickadees will overlap the ranges of the Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. When this occurs the species will generally stay separated. Mountain Chickadees will stay in conifers, leaving the deciduous trees to the Black-capped. When in contact with Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Mountain Chickadees will concentrate on pines, while the Chestnut-backs favor Douglas firs (Dunne). 
Mutual Support within Limits

Mountain Chickadees will join in flocks and forage together in winter in order to cache seeds. However, a strict hierarchy by age and sex is observed in the group. Males are dominant over mates, and within sex, older birds are dominate over younger birds. When observed at a feeder, subordinate chickadees will wait until the dominate bird leaves before feeding. In years of low seed production, it is more likely that younger birds will be the ones to move to lower altitude in search of seeds (McCallum, et al).  

The Mountain Chickadee is a cavity nester which usually prefers a hole in a tree. The nest is lined with strips of bark, moss, hair, or feathers. Usually 7-9 white eggs dotted with reddish brown are deposited. Incubation, primarily by the female, lasts about 14 days, and first flight takes place in about three more weeks. Parents will continue to feed young after that (Kaufman). During  the nesting period females may become more dominant in the flock.

Named for a Young Naturalist
The Mountain Chickadee shares the genus Poecile, from the Greek, poikilos, pied or dappled. Pied refers to the black and white colors. The species name gambeli was given by Thomas Nuttall to honor William Gambel (1823-1849), (Holloway). Gambel was a young naturalist who began studies with Nuttall at age 15. He died at age 26 of Typhoid Fever after being caught in an early snowstorm while crossing the Rocky Mountains in 1849 (Mearns and Mearns). He is credited with discovering the Mountain Chickadee just west of Santa Fe, NM.

Breeding bird surveys show some long-term decline in population numbers, but causes are not known (Alderfer). Mountain Chickadees will readily use next boxes and in some cases prefer them to other nesting sites (McCallum, et al). 

Photo by Dan Streiffert

Photo by Dan Streiffert

Black-Capped Chickadee

Poecile atricapilla

By Andy McCormick

  • Length           5.25 in
  • Wingspan      8 in
  • Weight:          0.39 oz
  • AOU Band code    BCCH

The Black-capped Chickadee is the most common and widespread of the chickadees and is easily identified by the average person. They are common at backyard feeders in winter and prefer deciduous or mixed woodlands. Its namesake chick-a-dee-dee-dee call is used in many different contexts such as making contact or as an alarm call. The fee-bee song is more common in spring and used to mark territories and attract mates. The Black-capped is one of 15 worldwide species in the genus Poecile from the Greek poikilos, spotted, pied, or dappled. Seven of the species are found in North America. The species name atricapilla, from ater, black, and capillus, hair of the head, refers to the black crown. 

The bird has a black cap, white cheek, black bib, gray back and buffy or pale pink sides.  In fall and winter when “fresh,” flight feathers and tail are trimmed in white. Worn summer birds show less white in the wings and tail. Two other chickadees closely resemble the Black-capped. Mountain Chickadees P. gambeli are distinguished by a white eye stripe, and Carolina Chickadees P. carolinensis have less white in the wings and are gray on the sides.

The Black-capped Chickadee has been well-studied and is known to have a strong linear hierarchy. Old birds are dominant to young ones, and males are dominant to females. High-ranking males have larger territories and eat more. They are preferred by females both as social breeding partners and for extra-pair copulation (Foote, et al). “Dominant pairs have larger clutches, greater hatching success, and greater nest survival” (Foote, et al). Unattached birds or floaters will join winter flocks and rank below birds of the same sex. They may insert themselves into a pair bond when a higher ranking bird disappears.

The hierarchical pattern of the Black-capped Chickadee extends to other species in mixed flocks containing nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers, warblers, and kinglets. These species will respond to chickadee alarm calls and chickadees provide flock cohesion and lead flock movements (Foote, et al). It appears that other species such as nuthatches and juncos can learn chickadee feeding habits at feeders.

Black-capped chickadees do not migrate and can survive winters by dropping their body temperature into a regulated hypothermia on cold winter nights (Foote et al). In some seasons with poor food they may erupt southward for brief periods of time. They nest in tree hollows such as old woodpecker holes and breed very early in the spring. Both sexes will enlarge the hole and line it with animal fur and moss. Eggs are white with reddish brown dots on the large end. The female incubates 6-8 eggs for less than two weeks and is fed by the male during this time. The young leave the nest in about 16 days (Kaufman). Populations of Black-capped Chickadees are stable, however, flocks in the central U. S have been negatively impacted by West Nile Virus. 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Parus rufescens

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length          4.5-5 in
  • AOU Band code    CBCH

The Chestnut-backed Chickadee (CBCH) is 4 1/2-5 in. long. Its genus Parus comes from the Latin for titmouse and the species rufescens is from the Latin for "to become reddish". It is the most brightly colored chickadee. Both male and female are alike and resemble the slightly larger Black-capped Chickadee (BCCH), but have a bright chestnut back, rump, sides and flanks with and dusky brown cap. However, birds on the central California coast have pale gray flanks. The black bib and white cheeks are like the BCCH.

The CBCH can be found in coniferous forests and mixed woods in a narrow range along the Pacific coast from SE Alaska to central California. The only inland population occurs in SE British Columbia and NW Montana. They acrobatically cling to branches, searching for insects and seeds. They readily come to feeders for sunflower seeds and suet. The CBCH travels in winter flocks with kinglets, nuthatches, and creepers which move through the woods foraging together.

Its nest is made of moss, hair, feathers and downy material, and is placed in a natural or excavated cavity, or a birdhouse. The male does courtship feeding of the female. The female does all of the incubation. There are 6-7 white eggs with light reddish speckles. The young break out in 11-12 days and then fledge 13-17 days later. Some birds have two broods in one season. The CBCH does not have a song. Its typical call consists of high buzzy notes with lower nasal, husky notes: tsidi-tsidi-tsidi-cheer-cheer or a weaker tsity ti jee jee.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson