The high altitude, western counterpart of its more familiar black-capped cousin, the mountain chickadee is a perky, curious bird with distinctive markings that is popular to see in pine forests of North America.
- Bill: Short, stout, black
- Size: 5.5 inches long with 7.5-inch wingspan, long tail, large round head
- Colors: Gray, white, black, buff, olive-gray
- Markings: Genders are similar with a black crown, black eye stripe and black nape, chin and throat. The auriculars are white, and there is a thick white eyebrow that may vary in length and thickness depending on the season, to the point of being very narrow or hard to see in late summer. The short black bib is relatively narrow but also varies. The underparts are plain grayish-white but may show a buff wash on the flanks. The upperparts are gray or olive-gray, and the dark gray wings have black edges. A faint white or lighter gray wash may show on the wings but is not distinct enough to be a wing bar. The tail is also dark and the legs, feet and eyes are all black.
Juveniles look similar to adults but with less defined markings and a shorter tail.
Insects, spiders, seeds (See: Insectivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
These small birds do not migrate, but stay in their preferred dry wooded mountain habitats year-round. They are most common in coniferous or mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, particularly where spruce-fir or pinyon-juniper mixes are most prevalent. The mountain chickadee's range extends from the southern part of Yukon to California and as far east as western Montana to western Texas, though they are only found at upper elevations of the mountains, closer to the tree line. In winter, they can be more nomadic in search of abundant food sources and may expand their range slightly to lower elevations in heavy snowfall or when food is scarce.
These birds have calls and songs similar to black-capped chickadees. The typical song is a high pitched four-note arrangement with two high notes followed by two low notes, with all notes approximately the same length. The common "chik-a-dee" call is raspier than that of other chickadees. At the nest, females will hiss if disturbed, and other gargling calls can also be common.
These birds are typically found in pairs or small groups. After the breeding season they will form mixed foraging flocks with kinglets, nuthatches and creepers, though only rarely with other chickadee species. While foraging, these are acrobatic and agile birds that will glean insects from bark with ease, even dangling upside down to feed, and they will frequently cache seeds under flaps of bark or wedged in crevices for later feeding. In flight, their wing beats are rapid and jerky. In the backyard or at mountain campsites, mountain chickadees can become rather tame and curious, and may even learn to take seeds from the hand.
These are monogamous birds. As a cavity-nesting species, they prefer to use natural tree cavities or old woodpecker holes for nesting or will excavate a suitable hole in a soft tree such as an aspen. Both parents work together to create a suitable cavity and build a small, cup-shaped nest inside it lined with moss, fur and feathers.
There are 5-12 eggs per brood, and 1-2 broods may be laid each season. The oval-shaped eggs are a dull white color and may be faintly marked with a few red-brown spots or specks. The female parent incubates the eggs for 12-14 days, and both parents will feed the altricial hatchlings for 18-21 days after they hatch. Juvenile birds may stay with their family group well into the winter.
Mountain chickadees may hybridize with black-capped chickadees or boreal chickadees where their breeding ranges overlap. The resulting offspring can be challenging to identify and will have markings of both species.
Attracting Mountain Chickadees:
In the right habitat and range, these birds will readily come to backyard feeders where sunflower seeds, suet or peanut butter are offered. Planting coniferous trees as part of bird-friendly landscaping can also help attract mountain chickadees, and they will readily nest in bird houses, particularly in forests where softer wood trees are less available for cavity excavation.
Though logging operations do cause some habitat loss that can impact the local populations of mountain chickadees, these birds are not threatened or endangered. Their range is widespread enough and they are adaptable enough to survive even in questionable areas.