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If you live in or visit the mountainous, rocky areas of the west of the United States, you will spot one of the amazing songbirds: the mountain chickadee.
I have seen it in forests, and I have also seen it in backyards. And every sighting is even more exciting.
This tiny bird always draws attention. It weighs less than half an ounce and fits nicely in the palm of your hand. Yet, it has an excellent tiny spatial memory; it stores thousands of food items every fall to get them through the chilly winters.
You will often see it flitting through high branches, searching for food in natural habitats. Or trying to win your heart over with amusing antics—hanging upside down to pluck insects or seeds from tree cones.
And in backyards, birders cherish watching them fly from bird feeders to birdhouses and birdbaths.
They are the nucleus of a bird’s mixed flock despite being the tiniest. Other birds are happy to hang around them for their signature call, Chickadee-dee-dee. The call is a powerful alarm against predators and food locations, alerting other birds of your intrusion into their area.
Mountain Chickadee at a Glance
- Scientific name: Poecile gambeli
- Order: Passeriformes
- Family: Paridae
The Mountain Chickadee is a small passerine bird native to the western United States, including California and Washington.
This omnivorous bird with a distinctive white eyebrow eats mainly seeds and invertebrates.
Despite being a common bird in North America, you may fail to spot them as they always feed very high in the trees. But it is very simple to attract them to backyards using water, nesting boxes, and food.
You can easily mistake the mountain Chickadee for a Black-capped Chickadee. They both have black throats and white cheeks, with an overall gray body color that is paler underneath and on the flanks.
To positively identify the mountain chickadee, look for the distinctive white eyebrow. Also, mountain chickadees are grayer underneath and have longer bills. Apart from the physical appearance, the mountain location is a big clue to narrowing down the identification of the mountain chickadees.
Mountain Chickadee Quick Facts
-Black bib and cap
-White stripe above the eye
-Grey upper body and pale grey below
-Plump body, long tail, and large head
|Length||Five to six inches|
|Similar species||-Black-capped chickadee
|Diet||-Eat insects, including caterpillars, beetles
-Insect pupae and eggs
-Small fruits, berries, and seeds
Sierra Nevada ranges
|Habitat||-High latitude areas including rocky mountains, coniferous forests, and deciduous forests
|Nesting||From mid-June to late July|
|Adaptations||-Can lower the temperature of their tiny legs to prevent freezing
-down feathers minimize heat loss
-waterproof contour feathers to resist water
|Number of eggs||Seven to nine eggs|
|Incubation period||About two weeks|
|Number of broods per year||One or two|
|Predators and threats||-Birds of prey like shrikes, owls, hawks
-Contamination from insecticides
|Conservation status||Least concern on the IUCN list|
|Unique behavior||-Forage high in trees
-Mimic snake to scare predators
-Nucleus in a mixed flock
-Monogamous and mate for life
-Agile and hangs upside down to reach for food
|another name||Cheeseburger Bird|
Identification of Mountain Chickadee
Also known as the Cheeseburger Bird, the mountain chickadee has a black bib, a black cap, white stripes above the eyes, a black bill, and an overall greyish body. Its tail, wings, and upper part are grey, while the underpart is a pale grey.
An adult mountain chickadee has a short, round body weighing 0.4 ounces. It has a wingspan of 7.5 inches and measures between five to six inches long.
Besides the unmistakable chickadee calls, all seven species of chickadees found in North America have similar physical appearances. They are black on their heads above the eyes, forming a black “cap.” They also have black throats, forming a bib, and white cheeks.
So, how do you differentiate the mountain chickadee from the other species of chickadees found in North America? Look out for these two main differences.
- The Mountain chickadee has a strong black cap and a white supercilium comprising white-tipped feathers running above its eyes. On the other hand, the other chickadees have a marked white streak running through the sides of their black caps.
- Range, location, and habitat significantly help to distinguish mountain chickadees from the others, especially their closest relative, the black-capped chickadee. Mountain chickadees occupy mountain ranges with evergreen coniferous forests, deciduous forests, ponderosa pines, and shrubs.
Looking at its silhouette, a mountain chickadee is a tiny bird, smaller than a sparrow but the same size as a black-capped chickadee. It has a large head, a plump body, a small bill, rounded wings, and a long, narrow tail.
Both the sexes and juveniles of chickadees have similar physical appearance and plumage. However, you can easily tell young juveniles from the yellow flanges at the sides of their beaks.
The Mountain chickadee is one of the most common birds in western America, but it is not always easy to spot. This is because it feeds high in the trees, making it difficult to spot it easily.
The Regional Differences of the Mountain Chickadees
Mountain chickadees inhabiting different regions have slight variations. For instance, those in the Rocky Mountains have short, blunt bills and buffy flanks. Those in the Great Basin have longer bills that are narrower and more pointed. Chickadees in the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada are distinct from the others: besides the largest beaks, they have the same colors on their back and flank.
Similar Species to Mountain Chickadee
Within the family of chickadees, the mountain chickadee is similar to the Carolina chickadee and black-capped chickadee. While these birds have specific home ranges, their striking similarities confuse most birding beginners.
Positive identification is a white eyebrow on the mountain chickadee, which other birds lack. You can also differentiate them by their home ranges, though the ranges overlap.
While mountain chickadees live in higher elevations in evergreen trees, the similar black-capped chickadee inhabits broad-leaved trees along the stream.
Other similar chickadee species with overlapping home ranges include boreal and chestnut-backed species.
The mountain chickadee is also similar to other birds outside the chickadee family. For instance, the bridled titmouse is similar to the mountain chickadee. Both of them have a white stripe but differ slightly. A bridled titmouse has a crest alluding to a pointed head, while a chickadee has a round head. A titmouse’s white stripe extends down to its neck.
When and Where to See Mountain Chickadees
This small and adorable bird is common in the western United States and Canada mountains. They prefer to live in all alpine forests and meadows at altitudes of over 10,000 feet.
Their range extends from Yukon in Canada to California in the United States, but they are more abundant in Northern California and Oregon. They are abundant in the forested slopes of the Rocky Mountains, from British Columbia to southern California and Texas. You will also spot them in Cascade, Sierra, and Rocky Mountain chains.
Mountain chickadees breed in rocky areas with many trees or shrubs, including evergreen, coniferous, and deciduous trees.
Chickadees are non-migratory, but a few mountain chickadees exhibit local migration.
As food becomes scarce in winter, juveniles migrate to the mountain’s foothills along river bottoms, and juniper stands. In summer, they move to high-elevation aspen forests.
Mountain Chickadee’s Unique Behaviours
The chickadees may not be among the most colorful birds in the forest. Still, what they lack in their grey color, they make up for in agility and acrobatics.
Mountain chickadee behavior mirrors that of other chickadee species, though. They are tree-loving birds that use acrobatics and agility to reach for food in places other avians and mammals cannot. Their agility enables them to hang upside down and turn at any angle comfortably while foraging for seeds or insects.
I always wonder about the Chickadees’ acrobatic and active lifestyle. They often cling to small limbs and twigs or hang upside down to reach the underparts of cones, branches, and needles.
Poecile gambeli also has agile flight maneuvers, enabling them to dodge predators and dart between trees. Even at the top of their flight, they can change direction in mid-air in a fraction of a second.
Like all members of the chickadee family, the mountain species also store food when it is in abundance. It will cache food during the fall for usage later in the winter. Chickadees hide food in different locations, and they will remember most, if not all, of the cache spots because of their large spatial memory.
Chickadees usually move in flocks that break up during breeding seasons in spring and spend the summer individually. Towards the end of summer, they regroup and join kinglets and nuthatches to form a mixed flock to braze the chilly winter together. Birds in the mixed flock follow each other, hopping from tree to tree.
A flock of mountain chickadees usually comprises three nesting pairs and several juveniles unrelated to the adults.
During chilly, sunny days, Mountain Chickadees often sunbathe for a little extra energy while perched on branches shielded from the wind. While most birds migrate away during the winter, chickadees brave the long, icy nights alone. They snuggle in trees, shrubs, or beneath huge tree bark chips.
Mountain Chickadee’s Nesting and Reproduction Behaviour
Chickadees are monogamous; most of them mate for life. Chickadees are usually social, but during the breeding season in spring, a flock pairs off, usually with a partner from the previous season. The males become territorial and establish up to 17 acres with plenty of food.
During courtship, the male does his best to win the catch. He brings food to his catch as gifts. He also enlarges his black cap and sings at the top of his voice. The females pay close attention to the bigger males with the loudest songs because they want the most vigorous babies.
Chickadees are cavity nesters, so after mating, they establish a nest in natural cavities, birdhouses, or holes dug by woodpeckers. And if they cannot find a suitable nesting point, the pair digs out a hole, 13 to 20 cm deep, in rotten trees or stumps.
Most chickadees prefer their nests two to five meters above the ground but can be a few centimeters or as high as 25 meters.
Nest excavation takes seven to ten days, after which the female lines it with soft materials like feathers, fur, moss, or plant fibers in another three or four days. She also prepares a fur cap for covering her precious eggs when she leaves the nest.
After completing the nest construction, the female lays eight to nine eggs, plain white or spotted with brown. The number of eggs can be as low as six or high as 12.
The female incubates the eggs for 14 days and is never alone. As a caring husband, the male frequently brings food to her and actively defends their territory. Occasionally she may leave the nest for food or water after covering the eggs with the nest lining.
Chickadee chicks are altricial when hatched, and both parents feed them until they develop and fledge in 20 days.
After fledging, the parents will feed them for another week as they gradually learn to forage for food.
Favorite Diet of the Mountain Chickadee
Poecile gambeli are omnivores with a diet comprising 30 percent seeds and 70 percent insects. They eat protein-rich insects and spiders during the summer and breeding seasons, including insect larvae, beetles, pupae, and caterpillars.
Insects thrive in the summer and spring and efficiently provide the birds with protein-required fat to survive the winter. Young ones, too, need the insects for fast growth, health, and development.
Seeds, however, are available throughout the year. They also eat berries, fruits, and buds.
While searching for food, you will notice them clinging to the underside of branches and tree trunks. Using sharp and strong beaks, they break seeds open by hammering them against trunks or branches.
They are attracted to backyard feeders filled with broken corn, suets, and sunflower seeds. Breeding birds will frequent backyards more in search of food for their young ones.
Chickadees have an insatiable appetite for insects. The behavior helps to manage and control populations of caterpillars, beetles, spiders, sawflies, ants, plant lice, gypsy moths, and cicadas.
Mountain Chickadee Song and Calls
Unlike most birds, chickadees call out their name, chickadee-dee-dee-dee. This call is used to mob predators, sing, chase rivals, and stay in contact with a flock.
But among the chickadee family, only the Mountain chickadee, Black-capped chickadee, and Carolina chickadee have whistled songs. Avian experts use calls and whistles to differentiate between the chickadees.
During the breeding season, the mountain chickadee churns out three-note whistles like black-capped chickadees. But for the mountain chickadee’s song, the first note is high pitched, followed by two lower pitched sounds, fee-bee-bee. Most people believe this song matches the rhythm of Cheeseburger, hence the name.
And when two rivals square it out, you will hear a burbling, half-swallowed gargle. You will also hear the same sound during mating.
How to Attract Mountain Chickadees to Your Backyard
Birds are pleasant to watch and readily come to backyards with resources. And like most common birds of North Carolina, it is also simple to attract mountain chickadees to backyards.
To attract mountain chickadees to your backyard, simply:
Put Up a Nest Box to Attract a Breeding Pair of Mountain Chickadees
Installing nesting boxes is one of the most effective ways to attract mountain chickadees to your backyard, especially a breeding pair. Ensure you install your nesting boxes ahead of the breeding season.
Chickadees are territorial, so install several nesting boxes well spaced around your backyard. Otherwise, the males will attack each other in competition for breeding spaces.
After installing the breeding boxes, I recommend you attach guards to deter predators from raiding nests looking for chicks and eggs. Read this article about the best birdhouse kits. You will find details on how to select the right house for your feathery friend and how to keep the houses safe from predators.
Using Bird Feeders to Attract Mountain Chickadees to Your Backyard
Feeders are another way to attract birds to your backyard. Provide feeders filled with their favorite seeds, like black oil sunflower. And during the winter, provide them with peanut butter and suet.
Seed mixes are popular among many backyard feeders, but I would discourage you from using them. This is because chickadees hate millet in seed mixes and often discard them, leading to wastage.
Mountain chickadees often visit various feeders, including hopper feeders, tube feeders, suet feeders, and platform feeders. So you have the option to purchase a type of feeder that will complement the aesthetic value of your backyard while feeding the birds.
Entice Mountain Chickadees to Your Backyard with Water and Bathtubs
Water is life, and we would not like our little feathered friends to go thirsty, especially during summer and the cold winters.
Pause for a moment and consider how birds will appreciate the fresh water in your backyard. Effective ways to inform birds about the free water include bowls, small fountains, drippers, and bubblers.
After filling their stomachs and topping them with fresh water, birds will also appreciate baths. Imagine how the birds flock to your backyard for a refreshing bath. And while your neighbors’ bird baths are frozen during winter, you may keep your feathered friends hydrated year round with a heated bird bath.
Interesting Facts About the Mountain Chickadee
According to energy models, a half-ounce chickadee needs about ten calories daily to survive. That’s equivalent to about one-twentieth of an ounce of peanut butter.
Female mountain chickadees use fur to mold a nest cup and then plug it with loose fur. The female covers her eggs with the fur plug when she leaves the nest.
We’ve all heard of the Mountain Chickadee’s appetite for insects—but did you know this behavior helps to protect forests and trees?
Occasionally, a significant outbreak of tree-killing insects, including bark beetles and needle miners, ravages the evergreen forests of the Western mountains. Such outbreaks are a much-welcomed feast for the mountain chickadees, as each bird eats its fill. In one outbreak, biologists counted 275 lodge needle miners in the stomach of a mountain chickadee.
So, as the chickadees get their fill, they help to control populations of destructive invertebrates.
While many are concerned about these insect outbreaks, I always smile because they provide plenty of food for insect-eating birds like the mountain chickadees. And the forests benefit, too, against destructive insects—a great example of nature’s ability to take care of itself without human intervention.
Mountain chickadees incubate their eggs much longer than their closest relatives, black-capped chickadees. While black-capped chickadees incubate their eggs for 14 days, mountain chickadees sit on their eggs for an additional week.
Ornithologists believe this strategy may have evolved in response to predators and nesting behaviors. Mountain chickadees prefer nesting in hard-walled cavities, which provide strong protection against predators.
Nesting mountain chickadees’ females often mimic the sounds and actions of snakes when disturbed. She hisses loudly, slaps her nest, and inflates her feathers. She does all this while moving her head back and forth.
Conservation Status of Mountain Chickadees
Mountain chickadees have a stable population in their home ranges. As such, they are classified as species of least concern by the IUCN.
The population of mountain chickadees has declined since the 1990s, mainly because of habitat destruction and insecticides.
Threats and Predators of Cheeseburgers
Mountain Chickadees have a stable population which has been declining at less than one percent per annum since the 1990s. Scientists attribute the decline to heavy predators and other threats.
Natural Predators of Mountain Chickadees
When it comes to the natural predators of mountain chickadees, there are many. These include snakes, hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats, and cats. Hawks are especially dangerous because they often dive from above to catch them, even in flight. Owls typically hunt them at night but can also be found in trees during the day.
Threats to Mountain Chickadees
The greatest threat to mountain chickadees is habitat loss because logging practices destroy their natural habitats and nesting trees. Mountain chickadees depend on coniferous trees for nesting, roosting, and foraging for food.
Cheeseburgers face heavy predation in areas with few trees and vegetation cover.
Other threats to this species include:
- natural disasters such as fires and earthquakes
- competition with other birds;
- climate change
- Environmental pollution
Mountain Chickadee: Frequently Asked Questions [FAQs]
Answer: Mountain chickadees have soft down feathers next to their skin, which insulates and maintain the bird’s body heat. The outer waterproof contour feathers further insulate the bird against low temperatures.
During the day, they eat furiously and gain up to ten percent of their body weight daily. They use the extra weight at the end of the long chilly night to maintain their bodies.
Chickadees have spatial memory, which helps them to cache and retrieve food hidden in different locations. The birds use the cached food to survive food shortages in winter.
They roost in nesting cavities, or boxes, to save energy and keep each other warm.
In extremely low temperatures, they conserve energy by lowering their metabolism rate at night. This strategy reduces their body temperature by up to ten degrees Celsius.
Answer: mountain chickadees pair up during the breeding season and establish breeding territories. After the breeding season, three nesting pairs of chickadees will form a flock of juveniles from different families.
And as winter approaches, the mountain chickadee flock joins other birds, including nuthatches, kinglets, and blue jays, to form a mixed flock. They roost communally to brave the icy winter but split into smaller groups when the winter ends.
If you are a backyard birder, I recommend installing several feeders and nesting boxes for them to avoid fights. Because of their territorial instincts, the mountain chickadees’ males will fiercely compete for resources, even in your backyards.
Answer: Mountain chickadees will not reuse an old nest. So, if you have a breeding pair in your backyard, remove the old nest when the birds have stopped using the box. Then clean it thoroughly for the next tenants.
Answer: On average, a mountain chickadee can live between two to three years. But heavy predation, environmental pollution, diseases, harsh weather elements, and habitat destruction shorten their lifespan.
A chickadee can live for ten years or more if you feed it and provide resources.
Answer: Many backyard bird watchers have reported that mountain chickadees are friendly. But few of them live in human-inhabited places because they require specific habitats.
But if you continue feeding it in your backyard and provide it with water and nesting boxes, it will learn to trust you and may even feed from your hands.
Because of their friendly and excellent personalities, mountain chickadees can be good pets.
Unique Bird with a Huge Personality
The Mountain Chickadee, a small bird with a distinctive white eyebrow, will easily charm you into having a wonderful experience. It weighs less than half an ounce, but it is a hardy winter-time bird that survives snowstorms and chilly temperatures.
Chickadees are very social and friendly birds. They love mingling with others of their kind, other birds and people alike.
The Mountain Chickadee is best known for its three-tone whistle song. But their basic instincts and behaviors are pretty fascinating.
I can watch them for hours because they love to perform acrobatic stunts high in the trees while foraging for food. And the sound of their calls is unique.
The Mountain Chickadee is a darling addition to any backyard. You can attract them easily using sunflower oil seeds, suet, peanut butter, or mealworms. You can also entice them to your backyard by adding a bird bath, nesting boxes, and shallow trays filled with water and gravel.
If you have the space for a feeder or a birdhouse, this is one of the most ingenious additions you can make to your home.
Here is a simple mnemonic phrase to help you distinguish the mountain chickadees from other similar species: the white eyebrows portray an angry bird, and as if to annoy birdwatchers, the low-pitched whistle song says, “you are too close, buddy.”
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