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Mountain Chickadee

Poecile gambeli ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Mountain Chickadee Photo

The tiny Mountain Chickadee is a busy presence overhead in the dry evergreen forests of the mountainous West. Often the nucleus in mixed flocks of small birds, Mountain Chickadees flit through high branches, hang upside down to pluck insects or seeds from cones, and give their scolding chick-a-dee call seemingly to anyone who will listen.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.3–5.5 in
11–14 cm
Weight
0.4 oz
11 g
Relative Size
Same size as Black-capped Chickadee.
Other Names
  • Mésange de Gambel (French)
  • Carbonero ceja blanca (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Energetic models suggest that a half-ounce chickadee needs to eat about 10 calories per day to survive. That’s equivalent to about one-twentieth of an ounce of peanut butter.
  • Chickadees will busily store food for later when they find a ready supply, such as your bird feeder. If you offer them sunflower seeds they’ll usually shell the seed first by holding it between their feet and hammering it apart with their beak. Then they'll fly off to stash it.
  • The evergreen forests of the Western mountains periodically suffer massive outbreaks of tree-killing insects such as bark beetles and needle miners. When this happens, it’s all-you-can-eat for Mountain Chickadees. During a lodgepole needle miner outbreak in Arizona, one chickadee was found with 275 of the tiny caterpillars in its stomach at one time.
  • Mountain Chickadees incubate their eggs almost a full week longer than their near-twins, the Black-capped Chickadees do. Some scientists think this is an evolutionary change that’s been made possible by Mountain Chickadees’ tendency to nest inside harder-walled trees, which are safer from predators.
  • The oldest recorded Mountain Chickadee was a male, and at least 10 years, 1 month old when he was identified by his band, alive in the wild in Utah in 1974. He had been banded in the same state in 1965.

Habitat


Forest

Common across most of the evergreen forests of Western mountains, particularly pine, mixed conifer, spruce-fir, and pinyon-juniper forests. Mountain Chickadees use conifers heavily, typically leaving deciduous stands to the Black-capped Chickadee. The exception is in nesting, when Mountain Chickadees will seek out any available aspen trees for their soft, easily excavated wood.

Food


Insects

Mountain Chickadees eat protein-rich insects and spiders during warm months, supplementing them with seeds and nuts as available. They come to bird feeders all year round. Many kinds of insects are eaten, including beetles, caterpillars, wasp larvae, aphids, and leafhoppers, as well as hard-to-reach scale insects and fly larvae hidden in plant galls. In fall and winter, seeds of montane pine species are very important.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
5–9 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6 in
1.6 cm
Egg Width
0.5 in
1.2 cm
Incubation Period
12–15 days
Nestling Period
17–23 days
Egg Description
Flat white, sometimes speckled with red.
Condition at Hatching
Naked, eyes closed, with tufts of down on head and along spine.
Nest Description

Inside the cavity the female makes a neat cup from fur she gathers. She also makes a fur plug or cap that she uses to cover her eggs when she leaves the cavity. In some cases chickadees compensate for large cavities by filling them several inches deep with insulating material.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Mountain Chickadees nest in cavities but they can’t excavate them unless the wood is very soft. Instead, they rely on holes made by other birds such as small woodpeckers and nuthatches. They also nest in natural crevices, in nest boxes, and occasionally on the ground amid roots.

Mountain Chickadee Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Mountain Chickadee Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Like other chickadees, Mountain Chickadees are quick, agile, curious birds that hop and flit through the outer twigs as they look for insects and seeds, often accompanied by several other species. As summer draws to a close, Mountain Chickadees band together into groups of up to three pairs of adults plus a variety of young birds. These juveniles have spent some time after fledging traveling in their own groups, but by September they typically join a group of adults and remain in that flock for the winter. In late winter, pairs begin to break away from foraging flocks to inspect possible nest sites. At feeders, chickadees have a distinct pecking order, with males typically forcing females aside except early in the breeding season. On cold, sunny mornings, Mountain Chickadees catch a little extra warmth by "sunbathing" on an exposed perch out of the wind. Unlike some other species, Mountain Chickadees typically brave the cold winter nights alone, huddled in foliage clumps or under big flakes of bark.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Mountain Chickadee populations declined by over 1.5% per year between 1966 and 2014, resulting in a cumulative loss of 53%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 7.5 million with 80% living in the U.S., 19% in Canada, and 1% in Mexico. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Mountain Chickadee is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. These birds are visitors to bird feeders and use birdhouses.

Credits

Range Map Help

Mountain Chickadee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident, but may move to lower elevations in winter.

Backyard Tips

Mountain Chickadees eagerly come to feeders. Like many feeder birds, they will often disregard millet in bird seed mixes. Feed them black oil sunflower seeds instead. In winter, they’ll also eat suet and peanut butter. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

See the Project FeederWatch guidelines for feeding birds in your yard and more tips on backyard birds.

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

Turn onto a Forest Service road and take it up into the mountains to your favorite trailhead. Within a few minutes of getting out of your car, you'll likely run into a flock of small birds flitting through the treetop. Mountain Chickadees are likely to be among them.

Get Involved

Download instructions for attracting nesting chickadees and building a nest box. Report information about nesting activity to NestWatch.

Visit our section on how to set up a bird feeder. Watch birds at your feeder in winter and report your counts to Project FeederWatch.

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Explore our Attracting Birds section for tips on setting up feeders and providing a welcoming habitat for birds

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The FeederWatcher's Food and Feeder Preferences of Common Feeder Birds.

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