Mountain Chickadees (Poecile gambeli) are a small songbird in the tit family. These chickadees are found in higher altitude Lodgepole Pine and White Spruce forests, and are rare breeders in the Yukon. Their sweet-sounding song and call notes are heard most often from within a mixed flock of chickadees. In the Yukon we have three different chickadee species (Black-capped, Boreal, and Mountain), so distinguishing the call notes and songs between these species can be very difficult. Mountain Chickadees are not migratory birds although chickadees will make small movements in the fall, usually from one neighbourhood or subdivision to another. If they find a bird feeder with a steady supply of food (Sunflower Seeds are their favorite) they will visit almost every day. Every winter I have a pair of Mountain Chickadees that travel with the Boreal Chickadees coming to my bird feeders, and in the summer they splash in the bird bath. When they are not at feeders they can be seen foraging for spiders, insects,and seeds (mainly pine seeds). They can be mistaken for Black-capped Chickadees, but their white eyebrow always makes them noticeably different. Adult Mountain Chickadees look exactly alike, and average at about 5-6 inches in length and 7.5 inches in wingspan. I am lucky in that I can observe all three Yukon chickadee species at my feeders in the winter. An interesting behavior that I have noticed is that in a mixed flock of chickadees, Boreal Chickadees are the most dominant species and will chase the other two away from food sources. Though Black-capped Chickadees are chased by Boreals, both of these species will chase Mountain Chickadees away. It appears that Mountain Chickadees are the lowest on the chickadee totem pole, and will only approach my bird feeders if the other two are not at the feeder at that moment. I do not know why this is, but I would be curious in finding out more about it.
In the spring male Mountain Chickadees can be heard singing their territorial song from Spruce Trees, and pairs will start checking woodpecker cavities, rotten trees, and bird houses for a potential nesting site. They are monogamous breeders, and will raise one or even two broods each year. The nests are usually thick beds of cushy moss with some grass, feathers, and hair added to help insulate the eggs. The female incubates five to nine white eggs with brownish-red speckles for two weeks. The male brings food to his mate during the incubation period, and after the eggs hatch both parents care for the hatchlings. They busily flit from tree to tree in a flight pattern resembling a bouncy ball, while the chicks call hungrily from the nest. It takes about three weeks for the chicks to fledge, and then they will stay with their parents and other flocks through the winter until the next spring. Though Mountain Chickadees are rare breeders in the Yukon their Conservation Status is currently of “Least Concern”.
Chickadees were thought to be the “bird of truth” by the Cherokee First Nations. One of their legends in which chickadees are proven to be birds of truth tells about an evil witch named “Spearfinger” that the entire Cherokee tribe was terrorized by. The witch would hide and wait for any members of the tribe to pass by her hiding spot and kill them. When the person was dead she would use her spearfinger to spear the liver and then eat it. Because the witch was made mostly of stone the tribe could not find any way to stop her. Then one day a chickadee landed on the witch and showed the warriors in the tribe exactly where the witch was vulnerable to their attack. The tribe managed to drive the witch away and from then on after they were no longer terrorized by Spearfinger, thanks to the chickadee.
If you live in an area where Mountain Chickadees have been seen and would like to attract them, putting up a bird feeder filled with Black Oil Sunflower seed is the best way to start. They are also attracted to bird baths and bird houses. A plan for a bird house suitable for all three chickadee species can be found at this link: http://www.50birds.com/D50BH2.htm/. I highly recommend this website to anyone who enjoys building bird houses because it has plans for seventy different birds that will nest in bird houses.
Bibliography can be found at this link: Mountain Chickadee Bibliography