Chiffchaff: the bird profiles


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
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What does the chiffchaff eat? How can you distinguish the chiffchaff from the willow warbler? Here is everything you should know about the songbird.

A chiffchaff perches on a branch
The inconspicuous chiffchaff is a wonderful singer [Photo: Marcin Perkowski/]

Although the chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) is fairly common, it is rarely noticed. Small in stature and with brown-grey plumage, this inconspicuous warbler distinguishes itself with a penetrating and memorable song. In fact, the chiffchaff is named after its song. And not just in English – in Dutch chiffchaffs are called “Tjiftjaf”, and in German, “Zilpzalp”. Read on to learn more about this fascinating bird, and hear that all too famous call.

Chiffchaff: key facts

SizeAbout 10cm
WeightAbout 10g
Breeding seasonMay-June
LifespanUp to 5 years
HabitatForests, parks and gardens
Food preferencesInsects
ThreatsDecline in natural habitat and food supply

How to recognise the chiffchaff

The chiffchaff is a small songbird with a narrow, pointed beak. Its crown, back and wings are grey-brown, and contrast slightly to its paler underside. A chiffchaff’s only distinguishing features are the pale, yellow stripes above its eyes. Unfortunately, it is impossible to distinguish male and female chiffchaffs with the naked eye.

What does a chiffchaff’s song sound like?

The chiffchaff’s song, from which the bird’s name is derived, has two syllables that alternate in pitch and repeat as often as the chiffchaff feels: “chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff”. This simple call not only identifies the warbler, but makes for an excellent introduction to bird watching. Whether you are a novice bird watcher or expert enthusiast, we have gathered some tips and tricks to help you watch our feathered friends. So read on!

A chiffchaff sings
chiffchaffs defend their territory with song [Photo: Menno Schaefer/]

How to recognise a young chiffchaff

If you can recognise an adult chiffchaff, you won’t have any trouble spotting a young chiffchaff – they look just like their parents, only smaller. If you look closely, you may also notice their undeveloped eye stripes. In late spring, look out for young chiffchaffs roaming together in small groups.

Two young chiffchaffs sit next to each other
Young chiffchaffs look like their parents [Photo: Pdsfotografie/]

How to recognise a chiffchaff egg

A female chiffchaff lays 4 to 6 eggs per clutch, each around 15 millimetres wide, white and covered with fine black speckles. The eggs are laid in a spherical nest with a side entrance made of moss, plant fibres and padded with feathers.

How to tell the difference between chiffchaffs and willow warblers?

Chiffchaffs and willow warblers are easy to confuse. They are almost identical; distinguishable only at close range or through a pair of binoculars. Your best bet is to look at the legs. Chiffchaffs have dark legs, and willow warblers have light legs. You could also look out for the colour of the bird’s cheeks and flanks, though it is harder to spot. The willow warbler’s cheeks and flanks are a purer white than the chiffchaff’s. In addition, the primary extension, that is, the part of the wing tip visible when the bird’s wings are folded, is longer in the willow warbler than the chiffchaff.

Before going to all the trouble of trying to spot these small differences, however, try listening. The two species’ songs couldn’t be more different, and there is no easier way to differentiate a willow warbler from a chiffchaff!

A willow warbler
Willow warblers have light legs, as appose to the chiffchaffs dark legs [Photo: Menno Schaefer/]

What is the perfect habitat for chiffchaffs?

Chiffchaffs are not picky about their neighbourhood, nor shy. Occupying a range of habitats, they can be found in forests, parks, gardens and even isolated hedgerows. The most important thing for a chiffchaff is a well-developed shrub layer and dense undergrowth. Not even altitude is of interest, with chiffchaffs widespread across lowlands and highlands, they have been recorded at altitudes of up to 2,000 metres above sea level.

Where do chiffchaffs build their nests?

Chiffchaffs build their homes close to the ground, using any shrub or hedge that is dense enough to protect and support their semi-open nests. The spherical nest is predominantly built by the female and requires a lot of material. In fact, within 5 days, a female will fly up to 1,500 times to look for nesting material.

A chiffchaff holds nesting material in its mouth
Chiffchaffs need lots of nesting material [Photo: Mark robert paton/]

When is breeding season for chiffchaffs?

Female chiffchaffs usually lay their eggs in early May and incubate them for 13 to 15 days. Following this, the hatchlings fly the nest, but remain dependent on their parents’ support for a further 20 days. Because of the nest’s proximity to the ground, chiffchaffs are exceptionally vulnerable to predators. So much so, that parents will often breed twice per season.

Where do chiffchaffs spend winter?

Most UK chiffchaffs are migratory and arrive in the UK to breed, before moving to warmer climates in autumn. The birds spend the winter either in the Mediterranean, Africa or near the Persian Gulf.

Help the chiffchaff!

Read on to find out how you can help the chiffchaff find food, build a nest and feel at home.

What do chiffchaffs eat?

The chiffchaff is an insectivore, for which its small, pointed beak is perfectly suited. However, in autumn and winter, chiffchaffs do eat berries and other fruit. To support the chiffchaff in winter, reach for soft food mixes, mealworms and fruit. Find out about the food preferences of other birds in our article on making your own bird food.

Which birdhouses are suitable for chiffchaffs?

Chiffchaffs are not keen on birdhouses. Traditional bird boxes are more suited for blue tits, great tits and starlings. Instead, chiffchaffs will appreciate natural nesting sites. Avoid thinning your hedges too much, and foster dense undergrowth. Another option is to loop a bundle of twigs and affix the loop to a (preferably evergreen) tree trunk. For chiffchaffs, it’s best to place this loop close to the ground.

A chiffchaff baby is fed in the nest
Chiffchaffs build their nests in dense vegetation [Photo: Pacotoscano/]

How can I support chiffchaffs even more?

Winter is not the only problematic time for birds. Insect numbers are declining, which makes feeding in summer increasingly challenging. As such, UK songbird populations are dwindling, particularly the insectivores. Remember: insect protection is bird protection. Avoid chemical sprays in your garden, as they often contain substances that are toxic to insects; it is worth buying organic. To bring life into your garden, you could also plant a flower meadow.

On hot days, almost all birds will appreciate a bird bath. A shallow bowl filled with water will do, and will not only please the chiffchaff, but also the chaffinch and nuthatch.

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