ChiffChaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) is a small, insectivorous leaf warbler in the family Phylloscopidae, which was established just recently in 2006 in consideration of the fact that the bird displays behaviour such as flicking its wings as it searches foliage for insects along the branches of trees and bushes. The genus name, Phylloscopus, is derived from ancient Greek phullon (leaf) and skopos (seeker). The term Chiffchaff is, in fact, onomatopoeic, and references the rather mechanical way in which the bird sings its two-note, metronomic “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff.” Interestingly, other European languages have similar names for the Chiffchaff: Dutch use “Tjiftjaf”, Germans use “Zilpzalp” and Welsh say “siff-saff”.

Its colour is somewhat bland, being comprised of an olive-green plumage with hints of brown and buff underparts. Chiffchaffs are almost indistinguishable from Willow warblers (see comparison below), and there’s often confusion between these two birds. Being only about the same size as a Blue tit (approximately 11cm in length), it is certainly one of the smaller birds in the UK, and to some degree of similar behaviour to a tit; energetic, lively and quick, especially when among trees and shrubs. In fact, the Chiffchaff is famed for its distinctive, quick tail-wagging movements.



Chiffchaffs are migratory birds to some parts of the UK, resident in others i.e. in the south of England, everywhere south of Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and East Anglia; Chiffchaffs spend the summer in the north of the UK, except certain parts of north and north east Scotland. Recently, it has been noted that Chiffchaffs have overwintered in the UK; whereas it is normal for them to migrate in September, not all are doing so.

Chiffchaff eating insect prey

Chiffchaffs are a very widespread leaf warbler, which all have a similar greenish appearance, and the Common Chiffchaff is difficult to distinguish from this crowd. Both females and male Chiffchaffs are similar in appearance; the only discernable difference is that the female is slightly smaller than male.

Feeding

Chiffchaffs are insectivorous birds, and prefer leaf insects such as caterpillars, gnats and midges. In fact, the term Phylloscopus means “leaf explorer”, as Chiffchaffs tend to feed on the undersides of leaves where aphids congregate due to the build up of sugary sap. They are also considerably keen on flies. In fact, so good is their aerial performance, they can feed mid-flight.

Habitat and behaviour

In certain parts of the UK, Chiffchaffs are resident all year round. In other parts (highlighted above), they are summer visitors only. Their arrival is quite early in relation to other migratory birds, coming in March from the Mediterranean and western Africa, where they spend the winter; and their arrival is marked by their distinct song. Male Chiffchaffs come to the UK up to three weeks earlier than females, and they are one of the last bird species to leave.

Your best chance of observing a Chiffchaff is by visiting a lowland woodland area, although they do sometimes visit parks and gardens – the latter (gardens) are usually only visited while Chiffchaffs are migrating southwards. Listen for their song (chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff) as they tend to dwell high up trees at the top, especially in wooded areas. Directly viewing one could prove difficult, as they are quick and relatively well-hidden birds.

Song

The Chiffchaff isn’t a particularly graceful singer, expressing a simple two-note mechanical song. Visit a low woodland area at the beginning of spring, and you should be able to hear a Chiffchaff distinctly and clearly: they are one of the first bird species to be heard at that time of year – an ideal alert to the start of the breeding season.

Their song is one of the easiest ways to distinguish a Willow warbler from a Chiffchaff. The Willow warbler presents its voice as a beautiful ascending and descending series of trills, very unlike that of the Chiffchaff.

“Willow warblers and Chiffchaffs are so similar in appearance that it is easier to distinguish them from their song.”

Breeding & nesting

Chiffchaffs begin their breeding process between April and May, which correlates with their early arrival to the UK in March. In any typical year, there can be up to two clutches produced, each containing between four-nine eggs, after which there is an incubation period of fourteen days. For a young Chiffchaff to fully fledge, around fifteen days is required. It is the responsibility of the female to build the nest, which is dome-shaped and often located near the ground, in tall grass, bushes or wall-creeping plants. In terms of parental care, male Chiffchaffs are not particular considerate fathers; they share at best an even share of responsibility, but for a large portion of the time it is the female that bears the responsibility for feeding young chicks.

Chiffchaff vs Willow warbler

It is common for Chiffchaffs to be confused with Willow warblers. Take a look below to see the difference between the two birds.

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Willow warbler

Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Look for these differences between the Willow warbler and Chiffchaff.

Legs Wings Eyebrows Tail Song
Chiffchaff Dark Short Short/Dull Wags Mechanical, repeated “Chiff-Chaff”
Willow warbler Pale Long Long/Distinct Flicks Long, liquid ascending and descending trills

Recommended Chiffchaff food

Dried Mealworms

Dried mealworms are the perfect nutritional food for your garden birds. Ideal for attracting species such as Blue tits, Starlings and Blackbirds, dried mealworms can be soaked in water over night for an extra juicy treat for your birds.

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Insect Suet Pellets

Containing a mix of real insects, these treats will give your garden birds a hearty meal in the winter months when natural food is scarce. Extremely nutritious, they’re packed with energy, protein, vitamins and minerals which also makes them ideal for feeding during the breeding season.

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Mealworm Suet Pellets

Suitable for year round feeding, these suet pellets have been blended with dried mealworms to create a delicious, high energy treat for your garden birds.

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Premium Wild Bird Suet Balls

Our premium suet balls each contain over 90g of high grade beef suet, wheat, peanuts and added dried mealworms. We guarantee your garden visitors will love this new recipe.

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