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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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018