Chiffchaff Vs. Willow Warbler – Differences And How To Identify

In this article, we look at the key difference between Chiffchaff vs. Willow Warbler. These two birds are hard to distinguish, but we will mention specific things that you can look out for.

The summer chorus of birds in the UK consists mainly of two migratory birds belonging to the same family: Phylloscopus. 

The chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus Collybita) arrive first in the UK during March, and the willow warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) arrive later in April. 

Both of them are restless, tiny birds who look so similar that separating them through visual cues is difficult even for experts. 


Chiffchaff Vs Willow Warbler


Yet, you can differentiate these summer visitors through their distinctive song types, nesting techniques, habitat, and sometimes by the way they fly. 

Although chiffchaffs are less common than warblers, studies have shown the willow warbler population in southern Britain declined by 47% between 1989 and 1993. We need to preserve these beautiful creatures so that our children can hear their songs.

Chiffchaff Vs. Willow Warbler: Key Differences

Song: Chiffchaff

You can hear chiffchaff’s typical songs at the beginning of spring after a cold and harsh winter. They arrive mostly in March and sometimes even in February. 

It is easy to identify a chiffchaff’s call as it sings its name, “chiff-chaff,” repeatedly. The call is monosyllabic and appears at small but random intervals. 

Sometimes Chiffchaffs get stuck on one note, and all you can hear is a monotonous ascending “hooeet” sound. Their call is soft and plain yet soothing to the ears.


Chiffchaff Vs. Willow Warbler - Differences And How To Identify


Song: Willow Warbler

Just like chiffchaff, willow warblers are also melodious singers and produce a sound like “hoo-eet” or “chiff-chaff.” The interval between the tones makes it a disyllabic call, unlike the chiffchaffs. 

The call starts with a high pitch and then descends to a regular tone, and finally, both the pitch and tempo diminish.  

The song of the willow warbler is often considered sweeter and more complex than chiffchaffs. But you would not hear it during late autumn, unlike chiffchaffs.

Flight: Chiffchaff

Chiffchaffs are always on the go. You won’t see a chiffchaff staying in one place; they are either fluttering their wings wagging their tails or dashing from one branch to the other. 

Because of their restless nature, it is difficult to observe them flying. Still, you can watch the features of their jerky flight when they jump into the air to catch insects. 


Chiffchaff Vs. Willow Warbler - Differences And How To Identify


Flight: Willow Warblers

Willow warblers have longer wings and a sturdier wing structure, as they have to migrate to Africa at the end of summer and then come back flying all the way. 

They are not as jumpy or restless as chiffchaffs. They have a steady flight path, not jerky like the Chiffchaffs. They do not wag their wings and tails, unlike Chiffchaffs. 

Nests: Chiffchaff

Chiffchaffs choose any place with a thick green cover to nest. The female builds the nest in the shape of a ball and with the help of dry leaves, feathers, grasses, nettles, and moss. Their nests are mainly found in woodlands, both deciduous and mixed. 

Nests: Willow Warblers

The willow warblers prefer building nests in vegetation-rich shrubs or the edges of woodlands. They build their nests on the ground and in the shape of a dome. 

The nests extend underground to protect the eggs from strong winds. Unlike male chiffchaffs, male willow warblers also help in building nests by collecting raw materials such as roots, leaves, moss, and animal hair. 


Chiffchaff Vs Willow Warbler


Breeding: Chiffchaff

The breeding season for the chiffchaffs lasts from April to late August. They produce 1-2 offspring in a year. Chiffchaffs lay around five eggs which are smooth in texture and have purple markings on the surface. 

Females incubate the eggs for fifteen days. When the eggs hatch, the female takes the responsibility of feeding them until they become mature and fully independent. 

Breeding: Willow Warblers

In contrast, willow warblers can lay up to 8 eggs. The eggs hatch within 14 days. An interesting and unusual fact about some male warblers is that they maintain two nests with two different females at the same time.  

Where You Can Find Them: Chiffchaff

Chiffchaffs prefer dense deciduous woodlands. You can see them across the UK except in the north and west parts of the country. 

They migrate to areas such as south England during winters and come back to Britain in mid or late March when you can spot them in naked trees of willow and birch. 

While migrating towards the south in the winter, they often rest at some places. This is why you can hear their “chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff” sound even in late autumn. 


Chiffchaff Vs. Willow Warbler - Differences And How To Identify


Where You Can Find Them: Willow Warblers

Willow warblers prefer birch and scrub woodlands. You can also find them in partial woodland areas. 

Willow warblers can be seen across the UK during the summer from April to September. In September, they begin to migrate to Africa to survive the harsh winters. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What bird makes a chiffchaff sound?

Both chiffchaffs and willow warblers make chiffchaff sounds. The difference is that the chiffchaff’s call lacks a large interval, unlike the warbler’s chiff-chaff sound.

What is the most common warbler?

The yellow-rumped warbler is the most common warbler as well as the most commonly found bird species throughout the world. 

Are willow warblers rare?

Willow warblers are common in the UK, but in recent years, their numbers have started declining in the South England region.

Do willow warblers visit gardens?

Yes, these birds mainly reside in scrub vegetation. So you can find them in the gardens of the UK during the summer. 

Wrap Up

The springs and summers of the UK are incomplete without the mixed sounds of chiffchaffs and willow warblers. It is unfortunate that their population has been on the decline in recent years.

We hope that the summer air of the UK will remain filled with the chords of the willow warblers and the chiffchaffs for many years to come. Thank you for reading the article.

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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