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All 6 Tits and Chickadees in Alaska

tits and chickadees in alaska
Boreal Chickadee in Alaska: Photo by Brian Sullivan

Introduction

Nestled within the rugged landscapes of Alaska lies a fascinating family of birds known as Paridae. The family of tits and chickadees in Alaska are adorable, often overlooked birds. In this article, we give a comprehensive overview of Alaska’s Paridae family, describing each species’ features, behaviors, habitats, and Alaskan range.

Surviving the Alaskan Winter

Chickadees and tits, resilient inhabitants of Alaska’s frigid landscapes, have an array of adaptations that enable their survival in the harsh winter conditions. One example is their ability to fluff up their feathers, creating a layer of insulating air to retain body heat in the cold. These birds have a high metabolic rate, allowing them to generate sufficient energy to maintain their body temperature. To conserve energy during the winter months when food sources are scarce, chickadees and tits exhibit remarkable memory skills, storing caches of food in hidden locations and retrieving them when needed.

Their omnivorous diet, which includes seeds, insects, and even small fruits, provides them with essential nutrients year-round. Furthermore, these birds often form communal roosts, huddling together in groups to share body heat during the coldest nights. All of these adaptations equip chickadees and tits in Alaska with the resilience and resourcefulness needed to thrive in the state’s unforgiving winter environment.

Tits and Chickadees in Alaska

Jump to a species!

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

  • Features: With a diminutive stature, this bird features a compact body shape characterized by a short neck and prominent, rounded head. Its profile is further defined by a slender, elongated tail and a short bill, slightly thicker than that of a warbler yet finer than a finch’s. Adorned with a black cap and bib, contrasting with white cheeks, its back displays a subtle soft gray hue. The wing feathers are tinged with gray and bordered in white, while the underparts transition from buffy tones on the sides to a pristine white beneath. Notably, the cap extends just beyond the bird’s black eyes, lending to the challenge of discerning its small, concealed gaze.
  • Behavior: Black-capped Chickadees are infrequent visitors to feeders, typically snatching a seed to consume elsewhere before swiftly departing. Known for their agility, they often congregate in flocks, characterized by their sudden burst of activity upon arrival. When in flight, they display a distinctive bouncy motion, traversing roads and open spaces individually and with a lively demeanor.
  • Habitat: Chickadees exhibit versatility in habitat selection, occupying a range of environments containing trees or woody shrubs, spanning from expansive forests and woodlots to urban residential areas and parks, occasionally venturing into weedy fields and cattail marshes. Their nesting preferences often lead them to birch or alder trees, where they construct their nests and raise their young.
  • Range: Black-capped Chickadees are regular in southern Alaska through much of the year, rarely reaching the northern parts of the state.

Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli)

  • Features: Diminutive yet possessing a large head and a petite bill, the Mountain Chickadee is characterized by a long, slender tail and ample, rounded wings. Resembling its chickadee counterparts, it boasts a distinctive black-and-white coloration on the head, contrasted with gray plumage elsewhere on its body. What sets the Mountain Chickadee apart is the prominent white stripe above its eye, a distinguishing feature that separates it from all other members of the chickadee family.
  • Behavior: Energetic and nimble, Mountain Chickadees are often observed engaging in agile maneuvers, whether clinging to small branches and twigs or skillfully hanging upside down from pine cones. During the winter months, they form flocks alongside kinglets and nuthatches, their movements synchronized as they traverse from tree to tree, each bird following the other in succession.
  • Habitat: Inhabiting the dry, mountainous forests of the Western regions, Mountain Chickadees carve out their niche amidst the towering evergreens of higher slopes. Conversely, their counterpart, the Black-capped Chickadee, tends to favor habitats along streams and amidst broad-leaved trees, offering a contrast in their respective ecological preferences.
  • Range: Mountain Chickadees are very rare visitors to the southeastern-most parts of Alaska, particularly the southeastern coast of the gulf.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)

  • Features: Small in size, with a disproportionately large head and a petite bill, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee is distinguished by its elongated, slender tail and compact, rounded wings. While sharing the striking black-and-white head pattern characteristic of chickadees, its back boasts a distinctive rich chestnut hue, setting it apart from its relatives with their usual slate-gray backs. Additionally, the flanks of this chickadee species vary in coloration and are a rusty brown in Alaskan birds.
  • Behavior: Dynamic and agile, Chestnut-backed Chickadees display remarkable activity, often seen clinging to small branches and twigs or exhibiting impressive acrobatics by hanging upside down from cones. During the winter season, they form flocks alongside kinglets and nuthatches, their flights characterized by short, undulating movements. When crossing open spaces, flock members embark individually, proceeding one at a time in a coordinated fashion.
  • Habitat: Chestnut-backed Chickadees inhabit the dense coniferous and mixed coniferous forests lining the Pacific Coast. Additionally, they are commonly sighted in shrubbery, trees, and urban parks scattered throughout cities, towns, and suburban areas.
  • Range: Their Alaskan range is limited to the southern end of the state. They can be found basically from Anchorage south and east down the gulf coast.

Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

  • Features: A diminutive songbird characterized by its sturdy physique and rounded head, complemented by a slender, elongated tail. Sporting a coat of muted gray-brown feathers, distinguished by a striking brown crown, a petite black bib, and delicate white cheek patches (turning gray towards the rear). Its underbelly is a soft whitish hue, accented by blush-toned buff flanks.
  • Behavior: This bird navigates its surroundings with nimble agility, constantly darting among branches and limbs in search of sustenance. Its movements are characterized by rapid and restless foraging, often punctuated by acrobatic maneuvers while perched. Occasionally, it employs a hovering technique to glean prey from the very tips of branches, showcasing its remarkable adaptability and resourcefulness.
  • Habitat: Primarily found in mature spruce-fir forests across Alaska and neighboring Canada, this bird tends to inhabit specific ecological niches within these dense woodland habitats.
  • Range: Boreal Chickadees can be found in most of the state, excluding the northern most reaches of Alaska. Even these birds have their limits.

Grey-headed Chickadee (Poecile cinctus)

  • Features: Formerly known as the Siberian Tit and distinguished by its, shall we say, voluminous head of feathers, deep cocoa-colored crown, prominent black chin patch, and rusty-hued flanks, this species stands apart from other tit varieties within its expansive boreal forest habitat.
  • Behavior: This bird hops agilely from the ground to branches within vegetation, foregoing walking or running as it navigates its surroundings. While foraging, it alternates between perching upright and hanging upside down, occasionally clutching vertical tree trunks but seldom hovering. With expansive home ranges, individuals may rarely encounter their nearest neighbors, leading to less well-defined breeding territories compared to some other tit and chickadee species.
  • Habitat: Extending predominantly above the Arctic Circle to the tree line within high-latitude forests characterized by a mix of conifers, hardwoods, or both, the species also occupies expansive temperate regions in Asia. In Alaska, Olaus Murie, a wildlife biologist, delineated its habitat as narrow bands of spruce and willow (Salix) woodlands tracing sinuous river valleys through the tundra, where the Grey-headed Chickadee stood as the sole representative of its kind. The species shows a preference for forest edges or areas where the forest transitions into open spaces.
  • Range: Most commonly found in the boreal forests of Scandinavia, Grey-headed Chickadees have also been recorded in the northern part of Alaska, near Noatak and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Great Tit (Parus major)

  • Features: Not likely to be mistaken with another Alaskan parid speices, the male Great Tit is distinguished by a broader black stripe along the belly compared to the female, while juveniles, typically observed in summer through early autumn, exhibit a yellowish wash on the face and generally duller plumage. Across much of its range, the underparts boast a vibrant yellow hue, although the bird found in Central Asia displays a white belly. This species, noticeably larger and featuring bolder patterns, stands in contrast to the Eurasian Blue Tit, often encountered in close proximity.
  • Behavior: Frequently observed at bird feeders and known to utilize nest boxes, this bird exhibits a distinctive plumage marked by white cheeks encircled by a black cap and bib.
  • Habitat: A prominent resident of woodlands, forests, parks, gardens, and hedgerows within agricultural landscapes.
  • Range: Not really known from Alaska, but for one record in the late eighties from the island of Diomede in the Bering Strait.

Threats and Conservation

Tits and chickadees in Alaska face a myriad of threats to their populations, including habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging, development, and climate change. These birds rely heavily on boreal forests for nesting, foraging, and breeding, making them particularly vulnerable to habitat degradation. Additionally, pollution, predation by invasive species, and disturbance from human activities pose significant challenges to their survival.

Conservation efforts in Alaska aim to address these threats through various initiatives, including habitat restoration, land preservation, and public education campaigns. Organizations such as the Audubon Alaska and the Alaska Songbird Institute play pivotal roles in bird conservation efforts across the state. They work tirelessly to protect vital habitats, conduct scientific research to better understand the needs of tits and chickadees, and engage communities in conservation actions to safeguard these beloved avian species for future generations.

Citizen Science

In Alaska, citizen science plays a crucial role in monitoring and conserving bird populations, including tits and chickadees. Through programs like the Alaska eBird and the Great Backyard Bird Count, volunteers contribute valuable data on bird sightings, distribution, and behavior across diverse habitats statewide. These citizen science initiatives empower individuals of all backgrounds to actively participate in ornithological research, providing scientists with a wealth of information to inform conservation strategies and policy decisions. By engaging citizens in hands-on monitoring efforts, Alaska fosters a culture of stewardship and collaboration, ultimately enhancing our understanding and protection of the avian diversity that enriches the Last Frontier.

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Conclusion

The tits and chickadees in Alaska play vital roles in the state’s ecosystems, despite facing threats such as habitat loss and climate change. Citizen science programs are instrumental in monitoring their populations and informing conservation efforts. Through collaborative initiatives and data-driven research, Alaska continues to strive towards the protection and preservation of these beloved avian species for future generations to enjoy.