© Gregg Thompson

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Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Poecile rufescens
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
Chickadees and titmice are small, sociable, energetic birds with short, pointed bills. There are four species of chickadees in Washington, and they generally have dark caps and throat patches, with white on their cheeks. The titmice typically have crests, and they are not represented in Washington. Males, females, and immatures have similar plumages. Most chickadee species are non-migratory; however, some populations of Black-cappeds have been shown to have extensive migration patterns in certain years. Most species live in forested habitats where they forage for seeds, insects, and spiders. Many are frequent visitors to seed and suet feeders. They have specially adapted legs that enable them to hang upside-down, which they do often when gleaning prey from twigs, bark, and foliage. They store food to survive the winter and are able to find an impressive percentage of cached food. Chickadees are typically monogamous and territorial during the breeding season, but form flocks (often of mixed species) with distinct dominance hierarchies the rest of the year. They are cavity-nesters, and many excavate their own cavities, an impressive feat considering their tiny bills. They excavate only in soft, rotten wood, and will also use old woodpecker holes, nest boxes, or other cavities. Both members of the pair may excavate, but females generally build the nests, which are usually made of a mossy base with soft hair or other material on top. The female incubates and broods the young, and both parents provide food.
Common resident west. Fairly common east.

    General Description

    With their white cheeks and dark caps and throats,Chestnut-backed Chickadees look much like Black-capped Chickadees. However the caps of Chestnut-backs are brown rather than black, and their backs, shoulders, and sides are a deep chestnut color. They are also slightly smaller than Black-capped Chickadees. Males, females, and juveniles share similar plumage.


    Chestnut-backed Chickadees favor dense, moist, coniferous forests. They can be found from the lowlands up to the tree line, wherever there is a wet, closed-canopy forest.


    During the breeding season Chestnut-backed Chickadees are territorial, but they join mixed-species flocks in winter. They forage by hopping along twigs and branches and gleaning their surfaces or by probing into bark crevices for food. They often hang upside-down to get at the undersides of branches and needles. They readily come to seed and suet feeders. Chestnut-backed Chickadees store food in the fall and retrieve it in winter.


    Insects, spiders, conifer seeds, and berries make up most of these omnivores' diets. They also readily eat suet and birdseed supplied by humans.


    Much of the nesting biology of Chestnut-backed Chickadees is not well known. They are monogamous, and pairs may excavate their own nest cavity (in soft rotten wood) or may use an old woodpecker hole or other cavity, including artificial nest boxes. The female builds a foundation of moss, lichen, and other material within the nest cavity, and then adds a lining of soft hair. She incubates 6 to 7 eggs. Incubation length is not well known, but incubation times for most chickadee species are about two weeks. Both members of the pair tend the young, but details of nestling time and time to independence are not well known.

    Migration Status

    During some winters Chestnut-backed Chickadees in colder climates may wander short distances, mostly as a result of food shortages. For the most part, however, they are permanent residents.

    Conservation Status

    When Northwest coniferous forests are clear-cut, hardwoods are often the first trees to grow in their place. Thus, clear-cutting favors Black-capped Chickadees, which prefer deciduous vegetation, over the conifer-specialized Chestnut-backeds. Although the Breeding Bird Survey has not detected significant trends in Washington, and Christmas Bird Count data reflect an increase throughout the Northwest, Chestnut-backed Chickadees have declined in the Seattle urban area. Audubon-Washington includes this species on its list of species-at-risk.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Chestnut-backed Chickadees are permanent residents in wet coniferous forests throughout the state. The majority of these habitats are in western Washington, where this bird is abundant, but some areas of eastern Washington provide suitable habitat as well. Chestnut-backeds are probably the most abundant chickadee species west of the Puget Trough and are the only chickadee just to the north on Vancouver Island, BC.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastCCCCCCCCCCCC
    Puget TroughCCCCCCCCCCCC
    North CascadesCCCCCCCCCCCC
    West CascadesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    East CascadesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Canadian RockiesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Blue MountainsFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Columbia Plateau

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

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