Chestnut-Backed Chickadee: Identification, Common Locations, Diet, and More!

Written by Tavia Fuller Armstrong
Published: November 21, 2023
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The chestnut-backed chickadee, Poecile rufescens, has a distinctive feature that sets it apart from the other six species of chickadees that live in North America. Can you guess what it is? This bird was named for the rich, reddish-brown, chestnut color that runs down its back. No other chickadee has that feature. Of course, due to its limited coastal range, the chestnut-backed chickadee does not get mistaken for other chickadees often. Let’s learn more about this cute bird, where it lives, what it eats, how it reproduces, and more!

Where to Find the Chestnut-backed Chickadee

The chestnut-backed chickadee lives primarily west of the Rocky Mountains along the coast. Its range stretches from the southern edge of Alaska, running right down the coast to the middle of California. It also extends into a large pocket of the Rocky Mountains that reaches as far east as Idaho and Montana in the United States and into southern Alberta in Canada. This range overlaps in places with the black-capped chickadee, the mountain chickadee, and the boreal chickadee.

Chestnut-backed chickadees do not migrate. However, they do move between upper and lower elevations as the seasons change. They live at elevations up to 6,000 feet. They thrive in moist, coniferous forests, as well as mixed forests and shrublands. These chickadees make themselves at home near human populations, whether in agricultural, suburban, or urban areas, as long as wooded areas exist nearby.

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Appearance

A Chestnut-backed Chickadee perched on a branch

Chestnut-backed chickadees have reddish-brown backs not seen on any other chickadee species.

©Bob Pool/Shutterstock.com

What do chestnut-backed chickadees look like? They have a distinctive appearance that one can easily distinguish from other chickadees in the same range. The chestnut-backed chickadee has a white bar across its face with a dark brown cap and matching bib, as opposed to the black cap of the aptly named black-capped chickadee or the striped cap of the mountain chickadee. They also have a bright, reddish-brown mantle that distinguishes them from the boreal chickadee. In fact, no other chickadee species has the same vibrant, chestnut color across its back. This species has either the same chestnut color on their flanks or, in the case of individuals living in the southern part of the range, medium gray.

Chestnut-backed chickadees are smaller than the much more widespread and familiar black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees. They reach only 3.9 to 4.7 inches in length, making them the smallest of all the chickadees. For reference, they rank somewhere between the size of a hummingbird and a sparrow. These chickadees have very round bodies with tiny bills, delicate feet, and dark-colored wings and tails.

Reproduction

Chestnut-backed Chickadee in a tree hole with moss

Chickadees most often nest in holes in trees or stumps, but sometimes use nest boxes if available.

©Shayne Kaye/iStock via Getty Images

Chestnut-backed chickadees flock together during the winter. During that time, pairs form, and in the spring, these pairs begin to look for places to nest. Just like other chickadees, the chestnut-backed chickadee nests in cavities found in trees, stumps, or posts. They sometimes excavate their own nest sites, but they often use abandoned holes made by woodpeckers. This species also often uses suitably placed nest boxes. Chestnut-backed chickadees prefer to nest at low heights, as little as 1 to 12 feet above the ground.

Females of this species manage the nest construction while males bring materials. The layered nest has moss and strips of bark on the bottom, then soft materials such as animal fur on top. Chestnut-backed chickadees make a very cozy nest, in which the female lays 1 to 11 eggs. The female incubates the eggs on her own, covering them with fur when she leaves the nest. Incubation takes about 12 to 18 days. The hatchlings emerge helpless and with no feathers. Within 18 to 21 days they will have grown enough to fledge.

Chestnut-backed chickadees do not typically mate for life. Most pairs stay together for one season or less. This species may produce one or two broods each year.

What Do Chestnut-backed Chickadees Eat?

Chestnut-backed Chickadee at nest cavity with food for the babies.

Chestnut-backed chickadees eat primarily insects, larvae, and eggs during warmer months.

©Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com

Chestnut-backed chickadees prey on insects, larvae, spiders, and other invertebrates that live on trees. These agile birds can move up, down, and all around trees to catch their prey. They have no problems hanging upside down to forage under leaves, branches, and bits of bark. Caterpillars and insect eggs make up a substantial portion of their diet. They may also catch moths in flight, but they tend to rip off their wings before consuming them.

In the winter, insects, larvae, and other favorite foods become scarce. Chestnut-backed chickadees then turn to a more herbivorous diet. They consume more seeds, berries, and fruits during the colder months, and may be more likely to visit feeders. These chickadees also store large amounts of food in secret caches when resources are plentiful.

Are Chestnut-backed Chickadees Rare?

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists the chestnut-backed chickadee as a species of Least Concern, with an increasing population. However, this species has a fairly narrow range mostly limited to the coastal region. It has adapted well to many types of habitats within that range and tolerates human populations easily. This bird is not considered rare, but it could face significant threats from habitat degradation in the form of logging and wildfires.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Wirestock/iStock via Getty Images


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About the Author

Tavia Fuller Armstrong is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on birds, mammals, reptiles, and chemistry. Tavia has been researching and writing about animals for approximately 30 years, since she completed an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tavia holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology with a wildlife emphasis from the University of Central Oklahoma. A resident of Oklahoma, Tavia has worked at the federal, state, and local level to educate hundreds of young people about science, wildlife, and endangered species.

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