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Chestnut-backed Chickadee Life History


ForestsChestnut-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.Back to top


InsectsChestnut-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.Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityMales 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.

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.

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.
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Foliage GleanerChestnut-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.Back to top


DecliningChestnut-backed Chickadees are common across their range but populations declined by about 56% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9.7 million, with 64% living in the U.S. and 36% in Canada. This is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. It rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Chestnut-backed Chickadee is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. 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.Back to top


Dahlsten, Donald L., Leonard A. Brennan, D. Archibald McCallum and Sandra L. Gaunt. (2002). Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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