By Charlotte Owen
The chiffchaff is a bird more easily heard than seen. Helpfully, it actually sings out its own name; a repetitive “chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff” with an occasional “chiff-chiff-chaff” or “chaff-chaff-chiff” – but that’s about as adventurous as its cheerful melody-making gets, so it’s one of the easiest birdsongs to learn. When you hear it, look up and you might spot the singer perched high in the treetops: a male, loudly declaring his territory.He is a small, olive-brown bird about the size of a blue-tit.In looks, he’s almost identical to his cousin the willow warbler, so his distinctive onomatopoeic song is the best way to get a definite ID.
Some chiffchaffs overwinter here but most are summer visitors. The great chiffchaff arrival begins in mid-March, so hearing one is a definite sign of spring.Males arrive first and there’s a scramble to claim and defend the best territory.In between bouts of song they are busy little birds, restlessly flitting through foliage with a distinctive tail-wagging movement in search of insect prey. The chiffchaff needs to eat a third of its own body weight in insects each day and will forage high in the tree canopy, often hovering briefly to pick off caterpillars, gnats and midges. The Latin name for chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita, is partially derived from its feeding behaviour.Phylloscopus means ‘leaf explorer’ and hungry chiffchaffs will carefully search the underside of each leaf for insect snacks. The collybita part is more obscure and derives from the Latin for ‘money changer’ – presumably because the bird’s repetitive song sounds like clinking coins.
Females arrive a few weeks after the males and are wooed by a delicate butterfly-like courtship dance. Once a pair bond is established, the female builds a domed nest on or near the ground, hidden amongst dense vegetation. She will use dead leaves and grass for the outer layer and line the inside with finer plant material and feathers, before laying 4-9 eggs. The male plays no part in incubation or chick-rearing but will aggressively defend the pair’s breeding territory, fearlessly flying at predators and driving off potential egg-thieves - and he’ll keep “chiff-chaffing” until June.