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The chiffchaff

David Chapman / 21 March 2018

Find out how to recognise the chiffchaff, one of the earliest migratory British garden birds to arrive in spring.

Chiffchaff, photograph by David Chapman

In like a lion and out like a lamb, March is the month when winter should be tamed and spring is sprung. Certainly it is the month that we see the first summer migrant birds returning to the country. Most of us associate the arrival of swallows with the beginning of spring but why wait for them? Spring seems to be starting earlier each year and one bird that always returns before the swallow is the chiffchaff.

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The early birds of spring

In 1780 Gilbert White, an eminent ornithologist, saw his earliest ever chiffchaff on the March 18. Nowadays, small numbers of this warbler are known to over-winter in most parts of the UK and are often heard singing on warm days as early as January or February.

One distinct advantage for those chiffchaffs that remain in residence is the opportunity to bag the best territories before the rest of their brethren return. But by the time we get to mid-March we will be witnessing an influx of migrating chiffchaffs and this is certainly the best time to look and listen for them.

Preferred habitat of chiffchaffs

The chiffchaff is a bird usually associated with hedgerows and woodland edges but it also nests in gardens which have some unkempt, wilder areas. Their scruffy spherical nests, made from grasses and leaves, are built low to the ground in tall grasses, brambles or shrubs. During the season they may have two clutches, the first in April, each containing up to nine eggs.

Population decline and stability

Looking at data relating to chiffchaff breeding times and rates we can clearly see that over the last few decades the first laying date is now at least ten days earlier than it was in the 1960s, and despite a decline in their population in the 60s and 70s this has been reversed and their breeding population in the UK is now about 50% higher than it was then. These changes are presumably connected to the tendency for more chiffchaffs to over-winter and to our generally milder winters.

Chiffchaff birdsong

Typical of a warbler the chiffchaff isn’t the most visually attractive of birds but it does have a remarkable voice. Unlike other warblers it enjoys sitting in obvious places to sing, the top of a bush or an overhead wire are often used. Its song is one of the most familiar to bird watchers but it is also easy enough for the novice to pick out.

The name ‘chiffchaff’ is an onomatopoeic word; it does exactly what it says on the tin. However the name is a necessarily simplified version of the song which in reality usually consists of lots of ‘chiffs’ before it ends with a ‘chaff’, indeed sometimes it doesn’t end with a ‘chaff’ at all. Whatever the pattern of repetition its name serves well as a reminder of its song just as, in the field, its song will remind you of its name.

Chiffchaff song.

How to identify the chiffchaff

Once located by its call it should be possible to spot a chiffchaff with relative ease even though it is one of our smallest of birds, with a length of 10cm and weight of about 8g. Its plumage is light brown or olive with some yellowish tinges and its fine beak is adapted for collecting insects which it will take from branches and leaves as well as being nimble enough to catch insects on the wing.

It is often difficult to identify warblers by sight. For example the chiffchaff is easily confused with the willow warbler. Their songs are the easiest way to distinguish them but failing this try to see their leg colour, chiffchaff’s legs are usually dark, those of the willow warbler are pale. The chiffchaff also has shorter wings than the willow warbler, a feature associated with birds which have shorter migratory journeys, and this gives it a slightly stockier appearance.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.