How to Identify Mountain Chickadees

Learn what mountain chickadees eat, what they look like, where to spot them and more. Plus learn how to tell them apart from black-capped chickadees.

Mountain chickadee on branchCourtesy Karlie Larson

Mountain Chickadee Sounds

Chickadees are very verbose birds. They sing fee-bee when amorous. They scold chick-a-dee, adding more dees the higher their anxiety. And when 
the risk is acute, such as a soaring hawk overhead, they shriek.

“That shriek means ‘freeze’ to the flock,” says Arch McCallum, a retired biology professor and the lead expert on mountain chickadees for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of The World.

Where Do Mountain Chickadees Live?

If you live in the Mountain West, a vocal black, white and gray bird might be a black-capped chickadee or its closest cousin, a mountain chickadee. The two are similar in size, about 4 inches long, with large heads, long tails and small bills. Both have a prominent black cap, white cheeks, light gray to buff sides, and a black throat patch, but only mountain chickadees have a white streak above their eyes.

Learn more about western birds and their eastern counterparts.

Mountain chickadees lay eggs in woodpecker holes and other cavities that they line with moss and scavenged fur. They use small nest boxes, too. If you hear a hiss coming from a birdhouse, it might be a mountain chickadee mimicking the sound of a snake 
to deter an intruder. Here are more ways to attract nesting birds to your yard.

The eggs are dull white with red spots. It takes more than three weeks for chicks to hatch and fledge. If the adults need to fetch food during that time, they cover the eggs or hatchlings with a fur “blanket” to hide them. (Check out these adorable photos of baby birds!)

“Mountain chickadees live in impregnable places behind a lot of wood where the young hang out as long as possible because it’s safe,” Arch says. “When they fly out, it’s full-bore. They’re really ready!”

A flock of mountain chickadees, called a banditry, is typically up to
three mated pairs plus several juveniles. Interestingly, the young birds are usually not the offspring of the pairs in the banditry. The only time mountain chickadees migrate is when they leave their mom and dad to find another flock, though they’ll move temporarily downslope during a harsh winter.

What Do Mountain Chickadees Eat?

Flocks readily come to feeders for sunflower seeds. They approach one at a time, grabbing a seed and carrying it to a nearby branch. Holding the seed with its feet, the bird pokes decisively at the seam until it breaks apart; the bird then eats the nutritious nugget inside 
or stashes it for a future meal.

Check out the 3 types of seeds and feeders birds love best.

“Mountain chickadees cache their finds in the bark and needles of trees and on the ground,” Arch says. “I’ve seen them fly straight to a place under a tree and pull out a seed. They have special memory for where they’ve put seeds. Their survival depends on it.”

These little sprites are full of life and fun to watch. They will make you smile as they frolic around a feeder and then fly off together.