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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
3.9–4.7 in
10–12 cm
Wingspan
7.5 in
19 cm
Weight
0.2–0.4 oz
7–12 g
Relative Size
The smallest, shortest-tailed chickadee
Other Names
  • Mésange à dos marron (French)

Cool Facts

  • The Chestnut-backed Chickadee uses lots of fur in making its nest, with fur or hair accounting for up to half the material in the hole. Rabbit, coyote, and deer hair are most common, but hair from skunks, cats, horses, or cows appears in nests as well. The adults make a layer of fur about a half-inch thick that they use to cover the eggs when they leave the nest.
  • Hole-nesting birds tend to have higher nest success rates than open-cup nesters, but that doesn't mean that they are immune to predation. Chestnut-backed Chickadee nests get attacked by predators including mice, squirrels, weasels, snakes, and black bears.
  • The Chestnut-backed Chickadee is not truly migratory, but it does make some seasonal movements. In late summer some birds move higher into the mountains. They move back to lower elevations when winter starts, particularly after heavy snowfalls.
  • The oldest recorded Chestnut-backed Chickadee was 9 years 6 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Chestnut-backed Chickadees live mainly in dense, wet coniferous forests along the Pacific Coast, including Douglas-firs; Monterey, ponderosa, or sugar pines; white firs, incense-cedar; and redwoods. They also occur in some deciduous forests, particularly willow and alder stands along streams, eucalyptus groves, open patches of madrone and shrubs, and sometimes along the edges of oak woodlands. They’re also commonly seen at backyard feeders in urban, suburban, and rural areas where extensive trees and shrubs are present.

Food


Insects

Chestnut-backed Chickadees eat about 65 percent insects and other arthropods, including spiders, caterpillars, leafhoppers, tiny scale insects, wasps, and aphids, feeding their young mainly caterpillars and wasp larvae. To a lesser extent they also eat seeds, berries and fruit pulp.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–11 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.7 cm
Egg Width
0.4–0.5 in
1.1–1.3 cm
Incubation Period
12–18 days
Nestling Period
18–21 days
Egg Description
White with reddish to light-brown spots.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except for sparse tufts of down, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest on her own. She makes a bottom layer or foundation of moss and strips of bark, particularly incense cedar when it’s available. The nest’s upper layer consists of animal fur woven with strips of bark, grass, feathers, and sometimes textile fibers. Among the kinds of fur found in these nests are rabbit, coyote, deer, skunk, cats, horses, and cattle. Adults also use fur to make a thin, warm flap to cover eggs when they leave the nest. Nest building takes 7-8 days, and the finished product can be quite variable in size: from about 1 inch to 6 inches tall.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Males take the first step in choosing nest sites, approaching a possible location while the female watches. Later, the female decides on the site, enters the cavity, and accepts pieces of vegetation brought by the male. Nest sites can be holes in rotted trees, stumps, and posts soft enough for the chickadees to excavate themselves, or old woodpecker holes. These nests are commonly 1-12 feet off the ground. Chestnut-backed Chickadees also readily use nest boxes.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Chestnut-backed Chickadees hop through trees and shrubs, often starting low down and working their way up to the top, then dropping low into a nearby tree. They pick insects and seeds from bark and twigs, sometimes hovering to reach items, or darting out to catch insects like a flycatcher or redstart. Many Chestnut-backed Chickadee pairs stay together for a year or less; a smaller number stay together for 2 to 4 years. Chestnut-backed Chickadees often form flocks with other species in winter. Where Chestnut-backed and Mountain chickadee ranges overlap, you’ll frequently find both species in a single flock, along with Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets, and Brown Creepers. During winter, they travel together in search of food. Flight can be direct, but is most often slightly undulating as is common in most chickadees.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are common across their range but populations have been gradually declining by just over 1 percent per year since 1966, resulting in a cumulative decline of 42 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 9.7 million, with 64 percent living in the U.S. and 36 percent in Canada. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and they are not on the 2012 Watch List, although they are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Chestnut-backed Chickadees nest in holes in dead limbs and trees, so forest management practices that remove these elements from a forest can make it harder for these birds to find nest sites.

Credits

  • Dahlsten, Donald L., Leonard A. Brennan, D. Archibald Mccallum and Sandra L. Gaunt. 2002. Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.proxy.library.cornell.edu/bna/species/689
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
  • Patuxent Wildlife Research Center longevity records
  • Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2012. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2010 analysis.

Range Map Help

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident. During summer months some Chestnut-backed Chickadees move to higher elevations.

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. Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

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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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.