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Last month I published an article on the sighting of a rare bird in the Butte area, a boreal chickadee.

As you might recall, Tom Bowler, a resident of Butte, sent me the picture of the chickadee. I assumed that Tom, and I still do, was familiar with the mountain and black-capped chickadee and would not be sending me a picture of a chickadee unless something was definitely different about what he was seeing.

The picture that he sent showed a chickadee with a brown cap. I assumed that what he saw was a brown-capped chickadee, and the only brown-capped chickadee possible was a boreal chickadee.

I must confess that I did not look for other field marks on the species, nor did I study the picture closely. I assumed that what Tom saw was a brown-capped chickadee, and his photo confirmed that.

However, I received several emails from birders around the state, who questioned the identification. Most felt that the picture was not what it appeared to be. They felt that an out-of-focus stem was in front of the bird and made the head appear to be brown when it was actually black. Upon a closer look at the picture, which I should have done in the first place, I can see black below the “apparent” brown cap.

Some also felt that the rest of the field marks did not support the identification to boreal chickadee. Let me quote from one of the emails that I received: “The headline certainly grabbed my attention, as Boreal Chickadees certainly are not at all prone to wandering. But what really grabbed my attention was the photo, which to me rather obviously shows a Black-capped Chickadee with an out-of-focus branch in front of its crown. In addition to seeing the shape of the branch coming in from the right, you can see the black of cap below and behind the apparent brown.”

Another email I received stated, “Hi Gary! I read your MT Standard article, and that bird is a Black-capped Chickadee. It does look superficially like a Boreal, but that brown cap is an artifact of an out-of-focus stick in front of the bird’s head. The rest of the bird is classic Black-capped. The nape is bright white and black, not the blended gray of a Boreal. Also, the flanks are pale buff, not the rich orange-salmon you’d expect on Boreal. The back is also gray, instead of brown, and the wings have a strong white mark on the secondaries."


I have to admit I didn’t looked that closely at the other field marks, I just looked at the cap color, and made the assumption Tom saw a boreal chickadee. Thus, I am willing to admit my error. The picture is not of a boreal chickadee, it is a black-capped chickadee.

Here is the interesting part of story. I emailed Tom and he assured me that the chickadee that he saw had a brown cap. I asked for more photos; unfortunately, this was the only photo he got. Could Tom have just thought he saw a brown-capped chickadee and the photo just happened to coincidentally show a chickadee with an out-of-focus stick in the picture, giving Tom the brown cap? Could it be that Tom did indeed see a brown-capped chickadee, and when he tried to photograph it, he got the photo he sent me, that seemed to confirm what he saw? To make the whole thing even more intriguing I received an email from another Butte resident, “My husband and I had the pleasure of watching the boreal chickadee for a few days a couple weeks ago at our bird feeder. They are indeed very beautiful. We were wondering what kind of bird they were as we had never seen them in our yard before. We live on the east side of Butte by East Jr. High.”

So what was seen in Butte? Two people feel they saw at least one brown-headed chickadee. Several experienced birders feel the picture is questionable, and I concur. The out-of-focus stick in front of the bird that makes the head look brown.


So how do these kinds of sightings get sorted out in Montana? Each state has a rare bird committee, made up of a dozen or so birders who make those decisions. If a bird is rare, under 20 sightings, and observed, you are asked to file with the committee a rare bird report. On the report you describe the field marks, submit a photo if you have one, eliminate other possible species, and state your familiarity with the species in other states. The committee then studies your written evidence, the photograph if there is one, and makes a decision. Over the years, I have submitted a handful of these reports, most have been accepted, but not all. It’s always difficult when your sighting is not accepted, but you have to learn not to take in personally, keep birding and keep submitting reports of rare sightings.

Have these rare bird committees ever made the wrong decision? Perhaps, but rarely. They strive to make the right call, so that the Montana Bird List is accurate and supportable. It’s not an easy task, and they are under-appreciated for what they do.

So what is the lesson of Butte’s boreal chickadee? I made the error of assuming too much based on the photo. I am not saying they did not see a brown-capped chickadee, I wasn’t there. Additionally, if you see a bird you can’t identify or it looks different, take good field notes of behavior and field marks. Secondly, if you have a camera take as many pictures as you can from several angles. Then, contact others and invite them to see the bird, or your pictures and get their opinion.

What you don’t want to do is what I did. I made assumption. I assumed that Tom and others were seeing a chickadee with a brown head, and the picture seemed to support that at first glance. I did not look at the other field marks before I made an identification. Again, I’m not saying these Butte folks did not see a brown-headed chickadee. They sure thought that they did. But due to the sedentary nature of the boreal chickadee, it is doubtful.

One birder made this comment to me, “It would be awesome if it were a boreal, but I’m afraid it’s just a very (un)lucky photograph that tricks the eye at first glance.”

I have included the picture in question, a picture of a boreal chickadee and a black-capped chickadee. You be the judge.

I think I made a mistake, but I would never say those Butte folks did not see what they said they did, that’s above my pay grade.

All in all — birding is a lot of fun, interesting, and on occasion we get an ID wrong, at least I do.

Gary Swant of Deer Lodge taught biological sciences at Powell County High School for 25 years. After retirement he founded GoBirdMontana,, an environmental consulting and bird guide service. He can be reached via email at This column features bird species of the Upper Clark Fork River Valley from Butte to Garrison. Swant hopes the column will inspire people to take an interest in observing birds.


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