Grays Harbor Birds — Chestnut-backed Chickadee


Size: 4.75 inches

General Description: A small, short-tailed bird with a brown cap to below the eyes, white cheeks and back of head, dark throat, gray breast and belly, and chestnut-colored back, shoulder, and sides. They are often found hanging upside down from cones and feeders, and may be in mixed flocks of goldfinches, nuthatches, and Black-capped Chickadees.

Habitat: Chestnut-backed Chickadees prefer dense, moist coniferous woods, but they are equally at home in the mixed forests and back yards around the Harbor.

Behavior: Like other chickadees, Chestnut-backed are territorial during breeding season but gregarious most of the year, moving around in the upper branches of trees in groups, gleaning bark and needles for bugs and neatly removing conifer seeds when available. They politely take their turns at backyard feeders, where they can quickly take a dent in a feeder full of black-oil sunflower seed, or in a block of suet. Their “chatter” is a nice background sound to reading a book outdoors.

Diet: As mentioned above, they enjoy busting your budget at the backyard feeders, but they compete for conifer seeds with the squirrels, remove insects and spiders from cracks and crevices on a tree or along the edge of the window, and will eat the berries off our native shrubs in the fall.

Nesting: Chickadees are monogamous and fiercely protect their breeding and nesting territories. They nest in holes in trees, either excavated by themselves in soft, rotten wood, or in a ready-made woodpecker hole or other cavity. They also accept nest boxes furnished by humans. The female builds a foundation of moss, lichens, plant down, and feathers, then lines it with soft fur; dryer lint (unscented of course) also works very nicely. She incubates 6 to 7 eggs for approximately 2 weeks. Both parents tend the young, but it is not known for how long they tend the babies, nor when the young become independent.

Migration Status: Chestnut-backed Chickadees may wander short distances from their feeding territory in search of food in harsh winters, but they are considered permanent residents.

Conservation Status: Christmas Bird Counts show chickadees increasing in numbers throughout the Pacific Northwest, but it isn’t because their habitat is safe; clear-cutting coniferous forests removes their native habitat and newly planted forests take time to mature. If not replanted, hardwoods replace their favored coniferous forest for food and for nesting, so the increase in their numbers may be due to our feeders and nest boxes. So hang those feeders, and put out chickadee-sized nest boxes, with openings of 1 1/8 inches in diameter. They would also like to have a layer of sawdust or wood chips inside on the floor, and the nest box should be mounted no more than 10 ft off the ground. If you would like more information on how to build them a nest box, you can find instructions at http://www.birdhouses101.com/chestnut-backed-chickadee.asp, or check your local library. They also use their nest boxes for shelter in the winter.

Where to Find in Grays Harbor County: They prefer dense forest but if you live near a forest, as many of us do, they will come to your yard for food if you have soft-wood conifers or safe and sheltered feeders.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon