Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mexican Chickadee

Mexican Chickadee at nest (Digiscoped photo by Narca)

Although the glamorous trogons draw most birders to southeastern Arizona and the Chiricahua Mountains, the Mexican Chickadee is actually the Chiricahua's major avian claim to fame––the only bird which does not reside elsewhere in Arizona. In New Mexico these chickadees occupy only the Animas Mountains, a region within a private ranch where access is very difficult. Beyond these two outlier populations in the US, the species inhabits mountains in Mexico.

I happened upon a chickadee nest last week in the Chiricahua's Pinery Canyon. The cavity entrance angles up from an old branch scar in a Gambel's Oak, about 20 feet above the ground. The parent––perhaps only the male––was bringing largish caterpillars and other insects to the young and emerging now and then with a fecal sac, removing it from the nest's vicinity. At one point another adult, presumably the female, emerged from the cavity to forage.

According to the Birds of North America account, the males do most of the providing for nestlings (sometimes all), and the females remain in the cavity much of the time. Given the fact that jays were prowling nearby, their nesting success is likely enhanced by the female's guarding behavior.

I'm very fond of Mexican Chickadees ever since Alan and I studied them in the Animas Mountains, 20 years ago. We found that chickadees in the drier Animas, where high elevation conifer habitat is much more limited than in the Chiricahuas, used oaks more frequently than they do in Arizona, where they are considered restricted to conifers during breeding season.

These charmers provide our mountains with one of their characteristic sounds, a burry chick-a-dee, which to me sounds much more like a slurred swear-to-God. Their habitat may be more restricted in the Chiricahuas since last year's Horseshoe Two fire, but the chickadees are still here, raising their young and enlivening the mountain slopes, where root-sprouting oaks attest to the forest's resilience.


  1. Nice find. Has anyone checked the known range of Chickadees in the Chiricahua Mountains to test the idea that, post fire, their range is more restricted or are the Mexican Chickadees still occupying the same range but utilizing more oaks (like the Animas Mountains population)?

  2. Hi Bufo! No one has researched that, as far as I know, but plenty of birders have been looking for them this spring, and finding them within mixed conifer habitat. This nest, even though in an oak, is still within the Doug-fir/pine forest. In the Animas the chickadees can be found in oak habitat, away from any conifers, while in the Chiricahuas they still seem to be associated with conifers.