Jul 10, 2014 | Featured Web Article

The Masked Bandit of the Mountains

Within their range, mountain chickadees can become regular visitors to bird feeders, where they prefer sunflower seeds and hearts, peanut bits, suet, and suet dough.
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A common and widespread bird in the forests of the mountain West, the mountain chickadee prefers to live in or near conifers. Like its chickadee relatives, the mountain chickadee is active and noisy as it forages high in the tall trees, often in mixed flocks with other species. These tagalong chickadee friends probably benefit from the mountain chickadee's inquisitive nature while foraging and its watchfulness in avoiding predators and danger. Mountain chickadees forage by gleaning insects and spiders from tree branches and bark. They also will hang upside-down like tiny acrobats to pry seeds from pine and spruce cones, and they regularly hover to glean insects from the undersides of branches and leaves.

How do I identify it? The mountain chickadee looks very similar to the much more widespread black-capped chickadee, but has a single white line—like an eyebrow—over the eye and a black line below that, through the eye. This gives the mountain chickadee a masked look. Males and females look alike. These are very active birds and are more easily heard before they are seen, since they prefer to live in forests of large evergreen trees. Their chick-a-dee-dee-dee call sounds a bit more hoarse than a black-capped chickadee's. The mountain's song is a series of three or four notes: fee-fee-bee with the first note being higher pitched than the last two or three.

Where do I find it? As its name suggests this is a bird of the mountains, ranging from western Canada south through the Rocky Mountains to west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona and west to California. It nests at high elevations and may move to lower elevations in winter, though this is a year-round resident across most of the range. Mountain chickadees are nearly always found near conifers-spruce, fir, pine, pinyon, juniper—as well as aspen groves. Watch for mountain chickadees foraging in mixed-species flocks during fall, winter, and spring.

What can I feed or do to attract it? Plantings of the conifer tree species listed above may attract this species. During the nesting season in late spring and summer, they may chose to excavate a nest in the soft wood of aspen or birch trees. They will use nest boxes as well as old woodpecker holes for nesting, so leaving dead trees in place where it is safe to do so can enhance your bird-friendly habitat. Their diet during spring and summer is largely insects, spiders, and berries. In fall and winter, they shift to seeds. Within their range, mountain chickadees can become regular visitors to bird feeders, where they prefer sunflower seeds and hearts, peanut bits, suet, and suet dough. And a source of clean water in a birdbath or water feature always attracts chickadees.

Where does it nest? Both males and females will work to excavate or enlarge a nesting cavity in soft wood and to build the nest inside, which is made out of fibers of bark, plants, grasses, moss, and animal fur or bird feathers. As many as a dozen eggs will be laid and incubated by the female for about two weeks. Nestlings are fed a diet of insects and spiders by both parents for about three weeks before fledging. If a nest is disturbed, the incubating female or nestlings may hiss like a snake to discourage predators!

Excerpted from the regional backyard guidebooks by Bill Thompson, III, and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest. View the entire series in our nature shop »



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