Chiffchaff. Phylloscopus colybita.

Image courtesy of Andreas Trepte  CC BY-SA 2.5 License.Creative commons Share Alike 2.5 generic license


Another article in the series about European birds. Here we review the lifestyle, and breeding of this handsome little bird with the common name of Chiffchaff. The birds under review are those that visit the British Isles but their habits and habitat will be familiar through the Continent of Europe. Migratory facts, nesting and rearing of the young will be reviewed along with courtship and territorial behaviour.
 Chiffchaffs belong to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes and placed in the family Phylloscopidae. from Phullon -a leaf + skopos indicating a watcher. the scientific name of collybita derives from the Greek kollubistes indicating a money changer.
 In the UK the Chiffchaff is placed on the Green list of Conservation concern {no concerns at present} with a population of 749,000 {summer}. It is not a species of concern in Europe.


The plumage is a greenish-olive brown, paler beneath inclined to be less green above and whiter below than the similar looking Willow warbler. They have a thin blackish bill and dark brown legs.There is a pale stripe over the eye white crescent under the eye. the head is round.

In relation to its body size the wings are short to medium length, tail medium length, the neck short, bill short and legs medium length. They hop. They are 10cm, {4 inches,} long with a wing span of 18cm, {seven and a quarter inches,} both male and female weigh nine grams.


Female chiffchaff with tail fanned.

Migratory issues.

This tiny bird is probably the best known of all the warblers that visit Great Britain. They are the first warblers to arrive and the last to leave our shores. they may arrive in late March or early April, and they quickly spread themselves over the greater part of England within a short time of arriving on the coast. This applies to the greater bulk of arrivals, however, individuals may be encountered as early as February. It is possible that these early arrivals may be birds that have overwintered in the more southern counties of England, which may become more the norm as 'climate change' produces milder winters.

 This migratory movement tends to be over a period of ten to 14 days, but their is variation. In some years it will be achieved in a few days of the arrival of the first male, in other years there may be a delay of perhaps a week or so after the first one arrives before any considerable numbers occur.

 They generally reach us during the night. The welcome notes of the male will be heard in the morning after he has arrived. The weather does not seem to affect this little feathered mite, and he soon takes to the top of a tree, and, in between his restless movements he will sing intermittently. swaying in the wind with his feathers ruffled he looks almost to delicate to stand the cold, yet apparently he his the hardiest of his tribe.

 However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Records reveal that in the year 1906 abnormal climatic conditions caused the migration to be delayed and when the bird did arrive they looked tired and listless, keeping low down in the bushes, searching eagerly for food. this behaviour is in startling contrast to later arrivals. if bad weather prevails, especially a series of gales, which frequently occurs at this period of the year, then they remain low in the bushes and hedgerows, singing if at all, very quietly.


Chiffchaff in a late winter tree

Image by Dal


The male is a very active little creature, and is fascinating to watch particularly on the birds first days after his arrival. he flits from the tree tops to the hedgerow, where he examines every leaf he passes in his quest for food, which is rarely plentiful at this time of the year. When he allows himself time to do so he sings.

 The more observant 'birder' will notice that he may seem to wander aimlessly, from tree top to hedgerow and darting back through the trees. However, he always returns to the tree in which he started from and then starts his rounds again, like others of his race he has well defined hunting grounds. This territory is of immense importance to to the males, frequently leading to serious and protracted struggles when another bird shows a desire for the same locality.

 I have witnessed the demeanour of these combatants, when not actually fighting or pursuing one another, they show the state of excitement they are in, for their wings are jerked about and their song is spasmodic. Chasing each other, the flight is rapid, darting in and out of the trees and bushes, and when they do clash the bills click as they collide, with one another..

 These boundaries of their territory can best be witnessed along narrow wooded banks, which are known to be inhabited by two males. In some cases it is almost possible to draw an imaginary line between the territories which are adjacent, that neither male will cross over. Sometimes there is a small intervening space between the two territories, which again neither male enters.

 Within the territory the male seems to choose a prominent perch, such as a dead tree or some favoured branch, which he uses as a base, and from which he makes little forays into different parts of his kingdom. However, he always seems to return sooner or later to his central position.

 In the early part of the season the dearth of insect food available to him may well account for his activity. They may be observed at this time searching the low holly bushes, examining the under sides of the foliage very carefully. On the underside of the leaves non-biting midges of the Chironomidae often congregate in large enough numbers for the bird to feast on.

 Other shrubs, trees and bushes that seem to attract his attention are solitary larches, willows growing by water and patches of sprouting hawthorn. Until the foliage clothes the trees the chiffchaff will roost in any conveniently warm situation, such as a clump of Ivy, thick bramble patches or the like. he retires to his chosen roost soon after sunset. At the roost he seems to be fearless and not easily disturbed.

 The females arrive 10-14 days after the males and when they arrive they seem to prefer the bottoms of hedgerows and thick vegetation, and the like rather than the taller trees. Soon after their arrival the courtship begins. As might be expected from such activity the courtship of these lively feathered mites is interesting. However, if one wants to witness this ritual one needs to be up and about during the first couple of hours of daylight.

 The female generally arrives during the night, and, as soon as there is sufficient light, the male in whose territory she has landed commences to court her. records show that the length of this courtship varies to a large degree. One pair may be courting for some mornings together, while others quickly become compatable and the task of nest building begins with in a day or two.

 During the actual courtship period the female moves quietly from place to place, calls loudly to her mate with a very long drawn out plaintive note, which compels him to follow her. off and on he darts towards her with a very quick flight, which results in a mimic battle, but although the clicking of the bills as they make contact, is audible, it is not difficult to see this is part of the courtship rather than the vicious clashing of bills experienced by two rival males.

Chiffchaff in spring.  Illustration  courtesy of BHL

Familiar Wild Birds -W. Swaysland 1883

Nest, Eggs and Young.

Once the courtship and the pairing has concluded the task of nest constructing begins. Once again studies have shown that this task may be carried out in a number of ways. Some birds just add a little to the nest each day, and some birds just get on with it it a hurried fashion. It is the female that does the majority of the building, with the male seemingly taking little or no notice of her, indeed sometimes he seems to be more of an annoyance than help, flying at her in a playful manner as she searches for materials

 Those materials are collected from around the location she has chosen and she may often be observed searching for them in the same spot. For a bird that spends such a great deal of time in the tree tops in search of her food it is somewhat surprising that the nest is always close to the ground, as is the case with the willow warbler its close relative. It is sometimes placed in the middle of a thick bramble bush or on the side of a banking, supported by dead grass on the level, or again, in masses of nettles and herbage. Wherever the site of the nest it is always well concealed.

 The nest itself is a beautiful domed shaped one, with the entrance at the side rather than near the top. The outside is composed of dried leaves, chiefly mixed with some of the courser dead grasses. Next to this dead grasses form the principle material mixed with fine roots. The lining is composed of feathers, but it seems, that close to the lining, finer and more delicate grasses are used than in the outer parts. The lower portions of the nest is much stouter than the upper parts, and the dead leaves are more securely 'glued' together.

 The eggs which number five to six are quite distinct, although similar in general character, the white ground colour being speckled thinly chiefly at the large end. The eggs are incubated by the female for thirteen to fourteen days and the young are born blind and helpless.

 The male during this period continues to sing his two note song a high pitched monotonous 'chiff,-chaff' from which the bird takes its common name. This call gives the bird its common name in many other countries also, for example the Welsh name is 'siff-saff' and the German name 'zilp,zalp'

 The female during the incubation only leaves the nest to relieve herself. When the young hatch both parents share the busy employment of supplying the food, however, once again it is the female which is the most industrious, while the male helps to a certain extent, but he does keep an eye out for intruders.

 The young are ready to fledge in around fourteen days. Until the young are capable of sustained flight , they keep low down in the bushes and undergrowth, often even on the ground. this must be an anxious time for the mother, as enemies are numerous and the young are generally scattered. However, it is only a matter of a few days before they are strong enough to regroup and then they tend to keep higher up in the tree canopy. At this time they may be observed all sitting in a row, some facing one , some the other. This may be a way of keeping warm. it is not unusual for two broods to be raised in a season.

Image courtesy of Aleph. CC BY-SA 2.5 License. 

File:Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita).jpg

Autumn Chiffchaff

In August, during the moulting period, they are much quieter {as is the case with all birds during the moult}, only singing occasionally, but in September, they together with other birds start to sing again. It is also at this period that when migration is on their mind and they start to gradually decline in numbers, so that by October there are few left in Britain.

 During the last few days of autumn that they spend with us they are still active and full of life and ready to play with one another, or, indeed with any other small bird which may be in the vicinity. An abundance of food and no young to feed may be the cause of this burst of energy, in addition to this they have finished their moult and therefore in the best of health. They are also fueled up in readiness for their journey to warmer climes, and we must endure the long cold winter before we meet up with this little feathered mite once again.


UK conservation status 2021

UK- Green List no current concerns.

Europe- Least concern. 

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