The colorful Chestnut-backed Chickadee of the Pacific Coast and northwestern North America has expanded its range in California. Like other chickadee species elsewhere, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee is often a focal member of mixed-species flocks during the winter months.
Although competition for nest cavities by other birds is something all cavity-nesting species must face, Chestnut-backed Chickadees have been known to be displaced by both bumble bees and yellow-jacket wasps taking over a cavity.
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Description of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee
The Chestnut-backed Chickadee has the striking head pattern, common to most chickadees, of a dark crown, white cheeks, and dark throat. Its back is a rich chestnut color, as are the flanks of most birds except those at the southern extent of the range, which have grayish flanks. Length: 5 in. Wingspan: 7 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adults.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees are found in primarily in conifer forests, but also in oak woodlands in southern populations.
Primarily insects and seeds, but also berries.
Forages actively among twigs and branches, frequently hanging upside down. Chestnut-backed Chickadees also come to bird feeders for seeds or suet.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees occur in the Pacific Northwest, south to northern California. The population appears to be stable, though it is not well measured.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Chestnut-backed Chickadee.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History .
Bird banders often dislike catching chickadees in mist nets, because they tend to firmly grasp the netting and are difficult to remove.
The striking reddish color of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee makes it the most colorful of our chickadees.
Calls include a series of buzzy notes.
No other chickadee has a similar dark chestnut color.
Boreal Chickadees might confuse inexperienced birders in the limited range overlap in parts of Canada and Alaska.
The nest is a foundation of moss, feathers, and lichens placed in a cavity excavated in rotting wood, usually under 20 feet high.
Number: Usually lay 6-7 eggs.
Color: White with fine, dark markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young are believed to hatch at about 11-12 days, and it is not well known when they leave the nest, though it is probably about 18 days.
Bent Life History of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Chestnut-backed Chickadee – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
PARUS RUFESCENS RUFESCENS Townsend
The visitor from the Eastern States is accustomed to seeing roving bands of chickadees, kinglets. creepers, and other small birds trooping through the winter woods and is not surprised when he finds just such jolly companies of friendly little feathered mites foraging through the dark coniferous forests of the humid Northwest coast. The kinglets and the creepers are so much like their eastern representatives that he does not recognize the difference, as he sees them in life; they are just familiar friends. kinglets and creepers. But the chickadees are different; they do not fit into memory’s picture of our New England woods; their caps are not so black as those of eastern birds, and the rich chestnut of their backs and sides is strikingly new. We get the thrill of a new bird, seen for the first time. But, as we watch them we see that they are still chickadees, with all their manners, activities, and cheery notes, just old familiar friends in more richly colored garments, but just as sociable, friendly, and intriguing; they win our affection at once.
The chestnut-backed chickadee, of which there are three recognized subspecies, occupies a long narrow range from the Sitka district of southern Alaska southward along the humid coast belt to a little south of Monterey Bay in California. Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1904), in his interesting paper on the origin and distribution of this species, says that its range is very “narrow, only within the confines of Oregon and Washington exceeding one hundred miles and elsewhere usually much less, save for one or two isolated interior colonies.” The type race, the subject of this sketch, occupies the greater part of this range, from Alaska southward to Mann County, Calif., where it intergrades with the Nicasio chickadee (P. T. neglectus). The interior colonies referred to are in suitable coniferous forest environments in Idaho and western Montana, west of the Continental Divide. As to the possible origin of the chestnut-backed chickadee, Dr. Grinnell (1904) calls attention to a certain degree of resemblance, as to appearance and habitat, between it and the Hudsonian chickadee; and he suggests that the two species may have been derived from common ancestry, the dark, rich coloring of 7ufescens having evolved under the influence of the humid coast belt in which it lives; though no intermediates between the two are now known to exist, these may have been eliminated by the existence of insurmountable natural barriers and thus the two have become separate species. It is an interesting theory! The favorite haunts of the chestnut-backed chickadees are the heavy, dark forests of firs, spruces and pines, dense cedar, tamarack, and hemlock woods, and, in California, the redwood forests. In the woods about Seattle and Kirkland, Wash., where we found this and the Oregon chickadees in 1911, there was then some of the primeval forest of lofty firs still left, but much of it had been lumbered and overgrown with second-growth firs of two or three species, with a considerable mixture of hemlock and a very handsome species of cedar; there was also some deciduous growth consisting of large alders and maples, with flowering dogwood in full bloom and a wild currant with pink blossoms.
Dr. Samuel S. Dickey writes to me that on the coast of southern Alaska “it is a bird that rather inclines to remain much of the time in the forests of gigantic evergreens, the Alaska cedars, Sitka spruces, western hemlocks and the firs. But not infrequently it will rove into glades and bogs, and it often comes down to the edges of the sea beaches, and only a stone’s throw from cabins and totem poles of the native Indians”
Nesting: The only nest of this species that 1 have seen was shown to me by D. E. Brown near South Tacoma, on May 14, 1911, while we were hunting through some of his favorite collecting grounds, smooth, level land with a fine growth of firs and cedars scattered about; the local species of firs were most abundant and were growing to perfection in the open stand, where they were well branched down to the ground. The chickadee’s nest was 5 feet from the ground in the trunk of a large dead pine, in a cavity evidently excavated by the birds in the rotten wood behind the bark; since it contained one fresh egg, it was not closely examined.
The nests of the chestnut-backed chickadee have been placed at widely varying heights, according to various observers, but all seem to agree that most of the nests are less than 10 feet above ground. Thomas D. Burleigh (1930) writes of the nests that he has found about Tacoma: “The usual situation was in a fir stub, varying in height from a foot and a half to nine feet from the ground, although one nest was twelve feet from the ground in a knot hole in the trunk of a large dead oak at the edge of a stretch of open prairie, while another was five feet from the ground in a cavity in the thick bark of a large Douglas fir in a short stretch of open woods”
J. H. Bowles (1909) has published an excellent account of this chickadee, in which he says:
At the approach of the nesting season the Chestnut-backs retire to the most arid section of the country to be found, the more exposed it is to the sun the better, and it is only in such locations that one may ever expect to find them during the breeding season. The nesting Site is chosen about the middle of April, most often in the deaxl stub of some giant fir or oak. On one occasion only have I found the nest near water, this being in a small willow on the edge of a swamp.
The birds almost invariably dig their own hole, but I once found a nest in the winter burrow of a Harris Woodpecker. One peculiarity about them, which greatly increases the difficulty of finding their nests, is that they almost never start the hole for themselves. Instead they select some place where a fragment of the wood or bark has been split away, or else they will often take the oval hole mad’~ by the larva of one of our largest beetles. These holes are not altered at the entrance in any way and, as the dead trees are full of them, it is extremely difficult to locate the one containing the nest.
He says that these chickadees sometimes nest in loose colonies; in one locality he “found no less than seven occupied nests inside a very small area, some not more than fifty yards apart.” The lowest nest he found was only “two feet up in a tiny fir stub,” but he says that “it is nothing unusual to find them fifty feet up in the giant fir stubs, remnants of long past forest fires.” Dawson (1923) says that he has “found nests as high as eighty feet in a fir stub; and in two instances in a dead tree wholly surrounded by water”
As to the nest itself, Mr. Bowles (1909) writes: “The cavity is usually about seven inches in depth, seldom any more, tho occasionally much less. Almost any soft substance to he found in the vicinity is used to make up the nesting material, but there is always a substantial foundation of green moss. Cotton waste from factories, hair of cows, squirrels, rabbits and goats, and small feathers are most often used, one very beautiful nest in my collection being composed almost entirely of feathers from the Kennicott Screech Owl (Otus asio kennicottii). No matter how large the bottom of the cavity may be, it is always packed tight, and I have sometimes removed a nest that would easily fill both hands”
Mr. Burleigh’s (1930) nests contained similar materials, including horsehair, feathers of a Steller’s jay, rope fiber, and white fur of a cat.
Eggs: The chestnut-backed chickadee most commonly lays a set of six or seven eggs, sometimes only five, frequently eight, and sometimes as many as nine. Mr. Bowles (1909) says that “the eggs vary greatly in both shape and size, some being shaped like a quail’s egg. others like a murre’s egg.” But most of the eggs that I have seen are ovate or short-ovate, though some are slightly pointed.
The ground color is pure white, and they are sparingly sprinkled with reddish brown or light red dots, sometimes with “sayal brown” or “snuff brown”; the markings are sometimes concentrated about the larger end of the egg, but of tener they are irregularly distributed; some eggs are evenly sprinkled with fine dots, and some are nearly or quite immaculate. The measurements of 40 eggs average 15.3 by 12.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 16.2 by 12.2, 14.9 by 12.6, 14.4 by 12.0, and 15.9 by 11.3 millimeters.
Young: The exact period of incubation does not seem to have been determined for this species. Dawson (1923) and Bowles (1909) both state that incubation begins when the first egg is laid, as the sizes of the embryos in a set of eggs vary considerably. Perhaps the bird does not incubate all through the laying period, but she covers the eggs when she leaves the nest, which keeps them warm, and furthermore, the nest is usually fully exposed to the heat of the sun, which helps the progress of embryo development.
The chickadees are very brave in the defense of their nest and resort to the common chickadee habit of hissing and fluttering their wings in a startling manner when an intruder looks into the nest.
Undoubtedly both parents assist in the care and feeding of the young, though we have no definite data on the subject. They seem to lose all fear of the human intruder in their anxiety to defend their young, and Dawson (1923) says: “Not infrequently, if the young are kindly treated, the parent bird will venture upon the hand or shoulder to pursue its necessary offices”
Plumages: I have seen no very young chickadees of this species. In the juvenal plumage, which is mainly acquired by the time the young bird leaves the nest, except that the wings and tail are not fully grown, the color pattern is the same as in the adult; the chestnut of the back, however, is duller, and that of the sides and flanks is duller and paler; the plumage is also softer and less blended. A partial postjuvenal molt, involving the contour plumage and the lesser wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail, takes place in August; by the first week in September the young bird has acquired a first winter plumage that is practically indistinguishable from that of the adult. Adults have one complete postnuptial molt in August and September.
The birds show some signs of wear and fading before summer, but assume the darker and more richly colored plumage in fall.
Food: Prof. F. E. L. Beal (1907) studied the contents of 57 stomachs of the chestnut-backed chickadees, taken in every month except March, April, and May, and found the food to consist of nearly 65 percent of animal matter and 35 of vegetable. Caterpillars constituted 18 percent of the animal food, taken in nearly every month, even in December and January; the largest amount, 53 percent, was taken in August. Hemiptera, leafhoppers, treehoppers, and olive and other scales were the most important item of food, amounting to about 25 percent. “Wasps were eaten to the extent of 13 percent of the food, but no ants were found. Beetles amount to less than 2 percent of the food, but nearly all are noxious; weevils appeared in one stomach.” No trace of flies or grasshoppers was found. Spiders amounted to 7 percent for the year but amounted to nearly 16 percent in August..
“The vegetable portion of the food consists of fruit pulp 8 percent, seeds nearly 20 percent, and miscellaneous matter 7 percent. Fruit pulp was found only in a few stomachs taken in fall and winter and was probably waste fruit. The seeds eaten were mostly those of coniferous trees”
Dr. Dickey (MS.) writes: “When they have wearied themselves in taking food from the trunks of trees, they will pass to huge crumbling logs, peck at green moss pads for certain items, and flit into and glean the tangled branches of such shrubs as salal, elderberry, dwarf blueberry, depauperized paper birch, alders, dogwood, etc. By mid-March, hordes of small winged gnats arise from the newly unfolding buds of the elderberry bushes, and such items are cherished by the tits. I noticed that, after the birds had fairly bounced the ‘bugs’ out of such cover, then they would arise and, craning their heads back and forth and thrusting forward their bodies, cleanse the air of this kind of provender. They lower themselves to boulders and rocks, and cleanse boats on dry docks of hiding insects, nor will they hesitate to peck at ‘barnacle scales.
Behavior: The chestnut-backed chickadees are almost exact counterparts of our familiar eastern chickadees in traits of character and behavior: fearless, sociable, and full of friendly curiosity. Taylor and Shaw (1927) describe their behavior very well, as follows:
Establish yourself in an inconspicuous position in the general vicinity of a flock and make a squeaking sound with the lips on the back of the hand. Presently a tiny chestnut back will appear in the needle clumps not far away, calling excitedly and seeking the author of the unusual call note. If you remain quiet and continue the squeaking you may soon find that the trees about you are alive with chestnutbacks, buuing about and hurling imprecations at you as if you were a new kind of owl. Incidentally in the group of excited birds you may catch sight of a number of other species.
Chestnut-backed chickadees are sociable bodies, indeed, even gregarious. Seen characteristically in flocks of 4 or 6 to 21) of their own kind, they approve, if they do not actively cultivate, loose association with several others, including westes-n golden-crowned kinglets, red-breasted nuthatches, Shufeldt juncos, mountain chickadees, and lutescent and Townsend warblers. Of t.hese the kinglets are moat often found in their company.
Dr. Dickey, in Alaska, found them associated in March with winter wrens, brown creepers, red-breasted nuthatches, sooty song sparrows, and Oregon juncos. “They are quick to react to noises in their haunts; they come hurrying out of plant cover, a gleam in their beady eyes; and they dangle upon dried seed heads and flower clusters of several kinds of shrubs or undergrowth of this wild region. They will swing up and down on bending branches, vent squeaks and low chirps, varied with buzzing ‘dizzes.’ Voice: The chestnut-backed chickadee seems to have a great variety of notes, perhaps of conversational value, most of which bear little resemblance to the chick-a-dee note of our blackcap, though Dawson (1923) says that this becomes kissadee, and Taylor and Shaw (1927) say that “when scolding us at short range they interjected numerous fine tseek a dee dees into their conversation”
Taylor and Shaw found some of the notes to be very similar to “certain calls of the western golden-crowned kinglet, so as to be distinguishable with difficulty. Several much-used expressions were caught and set down in our field books as follows: Toot sect seet see I repeated several times; this was sometimes varied to tsweet tsweet tsweet I One note is like whist, uttered once or repeated as many as three times. This triple note sometimes sounds like twit twit twit. The principal call note heard during one exceedingly foggy, rainy day early in September was tseet tseet! or tseet tseet tsew, a very kingletlike utterance. This was quite certainly a flock location call, for the birds continued it when we were no longer in view.
Both Bowles (1909) and Dawson (1923) refer to a song resembling that of the chipping sparrow. The latter says of it: “When the emotion of springtime is no longer controllable, the minikin swain mounts a fir limb and raps out a series of notes as monotonous as those of a Chipping Sparrow. The trial is shorter and the movement less rapid, so that the half dozen notes of a uniform character have more individual distinctness than, say, in the case of the Sparrow: Chick chick chick chick chick chick. Another performer may give each note a double character, so that the whole may sound like the snipping of a barber’s shears: Chulip c/tulip chulip c/tulip chulip”
Field marks: While traveling through the treetops in loose flocks, as is its customary habit, this chickadee might easily be mistaken for one of the other western chickadees. But at lower levels and at short range its chestnut back and sides are quite conspicuous. In juvenal plumage the young of this and the Hudsonian chickadee look somewhat alike, hut the former is considerably darker. The chestnut-backed chickadee frequents, as a rule, more heavily timbered and drier country than the Oregon chickadee, but there are exceptions to this rule. Its voice is also different from that of the others.
Enemies: In addition to the ordinary enemies of all small birds, there is, according to Mr. Bowles (1909), another unusual enemy, which is no other than the common black-and-yellow bumble bee. This insect has a veritable mania for living in holes in trees, and a chickadee nest appears to be the acme of its desires. It seems to like the nesting material and prefers the nest before the eggs are laid, but will often drive the bird away from an incomplete set, pulling up most of the nesting and leaving the eggs underneath”
Fall: S. F. Rathbun (MS.) says: “In October there appears to be a movement to the lowlands of those individuals that have spent the summer in the higher altitudes; and one who may happen to be in the mountains at that period will see, each day all through the month, numbers of these active little birds trooping by, this continuing well into November. It is common throughout the winter in the sections adjacent to tidewater, and also breeds in such localities, for the species can be round at all seasons in all parts of the region [around Seattle I~ although there is little doubt that the majority of the birds spend the summer in the more elevated districts, judged from the numbers that come from such in fall”
Winter: The chestnut-backed chickadee is a permanent resident throughout its range. Alfred M. Bailey (1927) says that “they are to be noted the year around, throughout the whole of southeastern Alaska,” where “they are probably the most numerous of the winter birds. * * * These cheery little creatures are often the only signs of bird life to be seen in the winter woods, and their quiet, comrade-like call, as they drift from one tree to another, can often be heard when the birds are obscured by the falling snow”
Range: Pacific coast region from Prince William Sound, Alaska, south to southern California and east to western Montana; not migratory. The range of this species extends north to Alaska (Resurrection Bay, Glacier, and Skagway); and northern British Columbia (Flood Glacier). East to British Columbia (Flood Glacier, Blackwater Lake, and Kootenay); western Montana (probably Glacier National Park, Clark Fork, and Fort Sherman); northeastern Oregon (Blue Mountains and Powder River Mountains); and California (Mount Shasta, McCloud, Hayward, and Cambria). South to southern California (Cambria). The western limits extend northward along the coast from southern California (Cambria) to the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska (Resurrection Bay).
As outlined the range is for the entire species, of whkh three subspecies are recognized. The typical form (Parus rufescens rujescens), occupies all of the range south to central California; the Nicasio chickadee (P. r. neglectus) is confined to coastal areas of Mann County, Calif.; and Barlow’s chickadee (P. r. barlowi) is found on the coast of California in the general area between San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay.
Egg dates: California: 58 records, March 12 to June 7; 30 records, April 23 to May 16, indicating the height of the season.
Washington: 30 records, April 7 to June 10; 16 records, May 9 to 24.
PARUS RUFESCENS NEGLECTUS Ridgway
In a short and narrow coastal region of middle California, the humid Transition Zone of Mann County, there lives a subspecies of the chestnut-backed chickadees that seems to be strictly intermediate in cobration between the other two races, one north and one south of it. Mr. Ridgway (1904) describes it as “similar to P. r. rujescens but with much less of chestnut on sides and flanks, which exteriorly are pale gray, the chestnut also paler and duller.” Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1904), in discussing this group, remarks that “this southward paling of the lateral feather tracts seems to be parallel to the relative decrease in the humidity of the regions occupied.” And this paling is carried still farther, with the practical disappearance of the chestnut sides in the next race to the southward, barlowi. The Nicasio chickadee seems to occur in its purity only in Mann County; it intergrades with P. r. rufescens in Sonoma County to the northward; and San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate seem to form an effectual barrier hetween it and P. r. barlowi to the southward.
In support of his theory that the two species Parus hudsonicus and P. rufescens were derived from common ancestry, Dr. Grinnell (1904) calls attention to the fact that “the young of barlozvi has the sides paler rusty than neglectus, neglectus slightly paler than rufescens, but rufescens has the sides slightly more rusty than hudsonicus, a sequence which accords well with the present theories of origin.” His hypothesis is based, of course, on the generally accepted theory that immature individuals more closely resemble the ancestral form than the adults do.
We have no reason to think that the habits of the Nicasio chickadee are very different from those of the chestnut-backed chickadees elsewhere. The eggs are characteristic of the species, as described under the preceding form. The measurements of 39 eggs average 15.7 by 12.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 17.6 by 12.2, 16.5 by 13.0, 14.3 by 12.0, and 15.2 by 11.9 millimeters.
PARUS RUFESCENS BARLOWI Grinnell
Farther south along the coastal area of middle California, from San Francisco Bay to a little south of Monterey Bay, we have this paler, less rufous-sided race of the chestnut-backed chickadees. In his original description of this race, which he named in honor of Chester Barlow, Dr. Grinnell (1900b) characterizes it as “similar to P. rufescens neglectus, but the sides pure smoked gray without a trace of rusty”
The San Francisco Bay region seems to form the northern barrier to the distribution of this race farther northward, and climatic conditions apparently prevent its extension farther south, a certain degree of humidity being required by this species. Dr. Grinnell (1904) remarks that “even the Santa Gruz District with its gray-sided barlowi has very much greater rainfall and cloudiness than regions immediately to the southward and interiorly. Too abrupt aridification with accompanying floral changes apparently fonns the present barrier to further distribution in these directions”
One would hardly expect Barlow’s chickadee to differ materially in its habits from the other two races of the species, and this seems to be the case, though differences in environment may cause it to select unorthodox nesting sites, as the following quotations will show. Dudley S. De Groot wrote to Milton S. Ray (1916) of three nests found in Golden Gate Park: “A nest found April 7, 1916, which contained six badly incubated eggs lying in a thick bed of rabbit fur, was located eight feet up in a hole in the side of a log cabin. Another was in a small cavity fifteen feet up in a eucalyptus and contained young almost ready to fly. The third nest was remarkable for its situation, being placed in a pipe leaning against an out-building. The nest was about one and a half feet down the pipe, which was only three inches in diameter, and contained, in very cramped quarters, young birds about half grown”
Joseph Mailliard (1931) located a nest in the same park that was in “the large mandibular foramen on the inside of the left mandible of the huge Sulphur-bottom Whale skeleton under the shed !” The eggs of Barlow’s chickadee are practically indistinguishable from those of the chestnut-backed chickadee. The measurements of 40 eggs average 15.5 by 11.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 17.3 by 12.2, 15.2 by 12.7, and 14.2 by 11.2 millimeters.