Note: thin, white eyebrow above black eye-stripe.
  • Note: thin, white eyebrow above black eye-stripe.

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Mountain Chickadee

Poecile gambeli
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 east, uncommon west.

    General Description

    Mountain Chickadees look similar to Black-capped Chickadees, with black caps, white cheeks, and black throats. They are gray above with light gray to buff sides and underparts. However, they have distinctive white lines above each eye, slightly longer bills, and are grayer underneath than Black-capped Chickadees. Males, females, and juveniles share the same plumage.


    Mountain Chickadees are typically found in dry coniferous forests, especially Ponderosa and lodgepole pines. During the summer they can also be found in high-elevation aspen forests. In winter, they sometimes inhabit juniper stands and river bottoms.


    During the breeding season Mountain Chickadees are territorial, but will join mixed-species flocks in winter, and tend to form pair bonds within the winter flocks. Chickadees forage by hopping on outer twigs and branches and gleaning the surfaces or probing into crevices for food. They often hang upside-down to get at the undersides of branches, cones, and needles. They will occasionally hover and will come to seed and suet feeders. They store food in the fall and retrieve it later in winter.


    Insects, spiders, the eggs of both, conifer seeds, and berries make up the majority of these omnivores' diets. During fall and winter, they rely heavily on conifer seeds. During the breeding season, insects, especially caterpillars, become more important.


    Mountain Chickadees are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. They are cavity-nesters and use existing cavities, including nest boxes and old woodpecker holes or other natural cavities. The female builds a foundation of moss, lichen, and grass, and then adds a lining of soft hair. The female incubates 6 to 7 eggs for about 14 days. The male brings food while the female incubates, and for the first few days after the young hatch, as the female broods the young almost continuously. As the young grow, the female joins the male in providing food. The young leave the nest at about 21 days, but stay on the breeding territory for another 2 to 3 weeks before heading off on their own.

    Migration Status

    Mountain Chickadees are mostly permanent residents, although food shortages may induce some (especially juveniles) to move to lower elevations in winter.

    Conservation Status

    There are two subspecies of Mountain Chickadee represented in Washington. One population inhabits the eastern Cascades and one population inhabits the Blue Mountains and northeast corner of the state. Data on trends in Washington and throughout the Mountain Chickadee's range are conflicting. According to Christmas Bird Count data, there has been an increase in winter numbers in the Northwest as a whole, but a decline in Washington. Breeding Bird Survey data show a slight, but non-significant increase in Washington during the breeding season, although the same survey has reported a survey-wide negative trend since 1980. More study is needed to understand the conservation status of the Mountain Chickadee in Washington, but habitat loss and fragmentation certainly may affect the population by eliminating corridors for dispersal and reducing food abundance.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Mountain Chickadees are common year round in dry forested habitats from the Cascade Crest east down to the edge of the shrub-steppe zone. West of the Cascades, they are common on the east slopes of Mt. Rainier, and they are occasionally seen in winter, but otherwise sightings in the western part of the state are rare.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest Coast
    Puget Trough
    North CascadesUUUUUUUUUUUU
    West CascadesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    East CascadesCCCCCCCCCCCC
    Canadian RockiesCCCCCCCCCCCC
    Blue MountainsCCCCCCCCCCCC
    Columbia PlateauCCCCCCCCCCCC

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern