Mountain Chickadee

A mountain chickadee comes in for a landing at my birdfeeder.

With a tiny whoosh of wings, a mountain chickadee, coming in from behind me, landed on my head. I could feel its tiny feet as it pranced around on my beanie in typical hyper chickadee style. I was photographing birds at my feeder and apparently, I was a convenient stop just before this chickadee landed on the feeder and its smorgasbord of peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Mountain chickadees are one of more than a dozen bird species that do not migrate from their mountain homes during the winter. Smaller than a sparrow and weighing in at under half an ounce, they are black, white and gray. Their head is a black cap followed by a white stripe (this is what separates them from all other chickadees), then a black stripe through the eye, white cheeks and a black chin. The belly is often gray but can also be a light rufus.

You may be more familiar with the black-capped chickadee, a near twin of the mountain chickadee, but lacking the white line above the eye. There are other subtle differences though, not in looks but in habitats and behaviors. The mountain chickadee is definitely a bird of the evergreen forests where black-capped chickadees prefer the deciduous forests and thus are more likely to be found in the valleys and river bottoms. Mountain chickadees also brood their eggs for about a week longer than black-capped chickadees, something scientists believe evolved because of the mountain chickadee’s tendency to nest in harder woods than black-capped chickadees. This affords the mountain chickadee nests additional protection from predators.

Mountain chickadees fooled me at first. Because they come into feeders so readily, I assumed that they must be primarily seed eaters even though the narrow-pointed bill should have been a clue. During the summer months they are predators, eating mostly invertebrates including caterpillars, beetles and spiders. Mountain chickadees are also adept at plucking larva from plant galls. During the occasional outbreaks of tree-killing insects such as bark beetles and needle miners, mountain chickadees are invaluable as natural controls, eating as many as 275-300 tiny caterpillars in a feeding. Seeds, especially those of evergreen trees, do become important in the winter time though.

What I have come to love about the mountain chickadees that come into my feeder is their agility and temerity. These are very busy birds, racing into the feeding station, snatching a single seed and then heading off to conceal it under a piece of bark for later use. They come in at top speed from the Douglas fir about 30 feet away. Sometimes they will fly between the narrowly spaced logs in my handrail, other times drop in from above and brake just barely in time to not crash into my picture window (that does happen on occasion). They can twist and turn on a pinpoint and even when the Clark’s nutcrackers take over the feeders, these little guys will still race in and steal a bite out from under these giants. I have found that my reflexes and five frames per second on the camera are seldom enough to capture one in flight.

Mountain chickadees may live ten years or more. I enjoy believing that the birds I fed last year are the same ones this year and that ours may be a friendship that lasts well into the future.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho