Until recently this small, solitary, old world leaf warbler was classified as being a member of the family Sylviidae, but following extensive research and reclassification, now falls within the family of Phylloscopidae.
The adult chiffchaff is predominantly mid brown tinged with olive green to the upper body and wings and a much paler yellowy buff brown to the underparts. The top of the head and nape mirror the colour of the upperparts whilst the sides of the neck, chin and throat are similar in colour to that of the breast, belly, flanks and vent. Above the eye there is a narrow pale stripe extending from the base of the bill rearwards; this is commonly referred to as the supercilium. From immediately behind the eye a dark stripe extends back to the nape. The iris is dark brown and there is a subtle thin white crescent under the eye. The wings are short and round and the primary and secondary flight feathers are brown, as are the tail feathers. The legs are thin and black and the bill a very dark brown. Although the adult female is smaller than the adult male, they are identical in plumage and colouration. Juveniles are similar to adults but browner to the upperparts.
Common Chiffchaff perched on a branch
The name of the bird derives from its loud often repeated song of, ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’. The call is a single syllable, ‘hweet’.
Chiffchaffs are insectivorous and extremely active during daylight, feeding mainly on flies and foraging from leaves amongst trees and bushes, as well as on the ground. Their normal daily intake of flies will usually be equal to a third of their bodyweight.
Chiffchaff with insect
There are six sub-species of the common chiffchaff with the common chiffchaff (Siberia) being monotypic, that is to say this particular subspecies is unique and has no other related subspecies. Whilst the common chiffchaff (common) is polytypic, meaning having a number of different variants and in this case it relates to a further five variants. The distribution range extends across the whole of Europe, including the United Kingdom, Canary Islands and the Baltic States, through Russia and the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, through north, west and east Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Mongolia, China, South Korea and Japan. Those birds who breed within the northern most areas of the range migrate south in late autumn.
Chiffchaff in flight
During migration it is often found roosting in bushes and areas of low lying vegetation near water and when returning early to its breeding grounds the common chiffchaff is a prolific singer and one of the earliest species to arrive at the onset of Spring. Weighing only seven grams on average, the chiffchaff is a tiny compact bird recognised by its distinctive and frequently repeated song. Careful observation is required to differentiate it from fellow warblers such as the Willow Warbler or Wood Warbler. The common chiffchaff has a unique downward bobbing movement of its tail which is a further aid to identification. During the summer it is more likely to be found in woodlands and parks and occasionally gardens with taller trees.
Common chiffchaffs pair at the beginning of each breeding season which generally lasts between April through to August. A different mate is chosen each breeding season. The breeding range in the main, encompasses Europe and Russia. The adult male will arrive at the breeding grounds up to three weeks prior to the female and choose a territory which it will fiercely protect from all other birds. Once a mate is chosen the female alone will construct a small dome shaped nest out of grasses which is often lined with other soft vegetation and feathers. The nest is built low down in dense vegetation such as thickets or bramble bushes. In the southern and central breeding areas it is normal for the female to produce two broods per season whilst in the cooler north, with shorter summers, one brood is produced annually. Each brood will consist of between 2 – 7 cream coloured eggs with dark spots which are incubated by the female for an average of thirteen days. Fledging occurs some two weeks after hatching and whilst the hatchlings are in the nest they are predominantly cared for and fed by the female with the male taking almost no part at all.
Chiffchaff collecting material to construct a nest
A juvenile Chiffchaff
The average life expectancy for a chiffchaff is up to five years although there is a significant mortality rate during the first twelve months after hatching.
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