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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Poecile rufescens ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Photo

A handsome chickadee that matches the rich brown bark of the coastal trees it lives among, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee is the species to look for up and down the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest. Active, sociable, and noisy as any chickadee, you’ll find these birds at the heart of foraging flocks moving through tall conifers with titmice, nuthatches, and sometimes other chickadee species. Though they’re at home in dark, wet woods, they’ve also readily taken to suburbs and ornamental shrubs of cities like San Francisco.

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Keys to identification Help

Chickadees
Chickadees
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Tiny, large-headed but small-billed, with a rather long, narrow tail and short, rounded wings.

  • Color Pattern

    The Chestnut-backed Chickadee is boldly black and white on the head like other chickadees, but the back is a rich chestnut instead of the more typical slaty gray. The flanks can be either rich brown (north of San Francisco) or dull gray (central and southern California).

  • Behavior

    Active and acrobatic, clinging to small limbs and twigs or hanging upside down from cones. In winter, Chestnut-backed Chickadees flock with kinglets and nuthatches. Flight is generally short and undulating, with flock members setting out to cross openings one at a time.

  • Habitat

    Chestnut-backed Chickadees are found in dense coniferous and mixed coniferous forests of the Pacific Coast. You can also find them in shrubs, trees, and parks of cities, towns, and suburbs.

Range Map Help

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Chestnut-backed Chickadee

    Adult
    • Dark brown cap and throat
    • Chestnut upper back
    • Blackish wings with white edging
    • White cheek patch
    • © quasimodo4502, San Francisco, California, January 2008
  • Adult

    Chestnut-backed Chickadee

    Adult
    • Dark brown cap and throat
    • Chestnut upper back and pale belly
    • Blackish wings with white edging
    • White cheek patch
    • © birdiemama, Morro Bay State Park, California, October 2007
  • Adult

    Chestnut-backed Chickadee

    Adult
    • Dark brown cap and throat
    • White cheek patch
    • Chesnut flanks and upper back
    • © cdbtx, Monroe, Washington
  • Adult

    Chestnut-backed Chickadee

    Adult
    • Dark brown cap and throat
    • White cheek patch
    • Chesnut flanks and upper back
    • © cdbtx, Monroe, Washington, February 2009
  • Adult

    Chestnut-backed Chickadee

    Adult
    • Grayish wings edged in white
    • Chestnut upper back and flanks
    • Short, pointed bill
    • © cdbtx, Monroe, Washington, February 2009

Similar Species

Similar Species

If you can see it, the rich brown back readily identifies Chestnut-backed from all other chickadees. For birds high in trees above you, Chestnut-backed Chickadees tend to look more muted than other species, with a dusky wash and a cap that's more dark brown than true black. Birds north of San Francisco show lots of chestnut on the flanks.

Regional Differences

Chestnut-backed Chickadees have dark chestnut flanks over most of their range, but birds from the central California coast (from Marin County southward) have gray flanks with limited chestnut toward the tail.

Backyard Tips

Set up bird feeders in your backyard with black oil sunflower seed, suet or other mixed seeds. If Chestnut-backed Chickadees inhabit your area, setting up nest boxes might entice them to nest on your property.

Find This Bird

Look for Chestnut-backed Chickadees high in the branches of coastal conifers, or lower down in shrubs around yards and park borders. When searching for Chestnut-backed Chickadees in winter, listen for its conspicuous chick-a-dee and other call notes, a great way to find this bird and the several other species that habitually forage with them.

Get Involved

Keep track of Chestnut-backed Chickadees at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Use our nest-box plans and tips to attract nesting chickadees. Report information about nesting activity to NestWatch.

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Explore audio recordings of Chestnut-backed Chickadees from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive

Find in-depth information on Chestnut-backed Chickadees and other hundreds of other birds for as little as $5 in The Birds of North America Online from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union.