Bird Of The Week: Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Oh God We’re Talking About Songbird Syntax Again

Species: Chestnut-backed Chickadee, or Poecile rufescens

Family: Paridae (Tits, titmice, and chickadees)

Star sign: Taurus

Rating: 13/10

Ideal Date: Drinking pine needle tea together and pretending it doesn’t taste like garbage

Chickadees! What’s not to love about these special little guys? They’re round, they’re cute, they’re fluffy, and their calls are syntactically complicated enough that some consider them language! There are a lot of cool kinds of Chickadees out there; some live in the mountains, some live in the desert, and some of them live all over! But here on the northwest coast of our beautiful continent, we have a special chickadee of our own, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Called “the most colorful of the chickadees” by, this flufftastic friend is named for the unique warm chestnut color of his back and sides. This habitat of this special songbird is limited to the rainy, coniferous Pacific Coast in states such as our own Oregon! Head even a hundred miles east, and you will feel between your ribs the keen, aching absence of these delightful ruddy rascals. They just love our forests too much to go anywhere else; they barely even migrate! 

According to Birds of the World, these feathery fellows are fond of Douglas Firs, redwoods, and other cool conifers unique to our lovely climes. These trees serve both as bug buffets and hidey holes for our friends, and their rusty coats blend in perfectly against the orange-brown bark of so many conifers around here! But Douglases aren’t the only kind of fir that the Chestnut-backed Chickadee enjoys — they also like fur of the animal variety! Up to half of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee’s nest will be made up of fur from a variety of creatures: All About Birds notes that “Rabbit, coyote, and deer hair are most common, but hair from skunks, cats, horses, or cows appears in nests as well.” The friends use this fur to make their nest nooks about as comfy and cozy as possible for their young. What considerate parents! 

Image courtesy of All About Birds

Image courtesy of All About Birds

Like the rest of their chickadee brethren, these bird blobs get their genus name from their iconic ‘chick-a-dee’ call — which is notable as a rare instance of animals using syntax! Chickadees combine different notes sequentially to convey different meanings in their ‘chick-a-dee’ calls, comparable to how human languages combine words to form sentences —albeit in a much simpler fashion than us. (If you want to learn more about this combinatorial, syntactic communication in Black-capped Chickadees rather than our Chestnut-colored friends of the week, go to!). When it comes to calls, Chestnuts share more in common with Boreal and Mexican Chickadees than they do with their Black-capped brethren, though regardless of species, all ‘chick-a-dee’ calls feature the same elements and the same grammar. When judged against their fellow Chickadee cousins, Chestnuts have a far more limited repertoire of non-‘chick-a-dee’ vocalizations — but that just means they rely on this one all the more. According to Birds of the World, chestnuts use the ‘chick-a-dee’ call “in a variety of contexts, including flock cohesion, territorial and nest defense, and dawnsong.” The ‘chick-a-dee’ call complex of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee is not very well studied, but even what we do know indicates that these are clever little fellows using their cute little bird language to the fullest extent possible!

If you want to see one of these brown bird blobs on our campus, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a small round stubby-billed songbird with a black and white face, chestnut-colored body, and gray wings. Chestnut-backed Chickadees closely resemble other Chickadees, including the Black-capped variety which is more common at Reed, so be sure to take note of the beautiful rusty red-brown of their feathers. You’re mostly going to see them flitting, forever in motion, among coniferous branches and twigs as they search for food; in winter, they like to hang out in inter-species flocks with other little guys such as nuthatches and kinglets. And, of course, be sure to keep an ear out for that beautiful, iconic, and eternally-interesting ‘chick-a-dee’ call they love to sing out to the world!

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