Abstract

The gray-headed chickadee Poecile cinctus is a Holarctic songbird that occurs from northern Europe across Asia and into northwestern North America. Historically, the endemic North American subspecies P. c. lathami ranged across portions of interior and northern Alaska and northwest Canada. Though often described as rare, ornithologists considered it locally common in parts of its distribution. Anecdotal reports of declines and a lack of recent observations motivated us to initiate efforts to better understand the current distribution and abundance of this species. We conducted 862 h of field surveys focused on detecting gray-headed chickadees between 2010 and 2017 and detected only three individuals and no evidence of nesting in locations where the species previously occurred. We also compiled a database of 156 occurrences that likely represents nearly all the available reliable records in North America since 1864. Based on a comparison of these data before and after the year 2000, it appears the species may no longer occur in southwestern or Interior Alaska, or the Northwest Territories where scientists previously documented it. Results from a citizen science initiative to collect recent observations revealed citizen scientists reliably report only a few gray-headed chickadee sightings annually. Additionally, the species appears to have recently disappeared from two locations where observers previously reported it annually for > 20 y. Collectively, these data suggest it is likely the species' distribution has contracted, its population has declined, and its current population size is very small in North America. We emphasize that though we base these conclusions on the best available information, more information is needed before the status of this rare species can be determined with confidence. Despite recognized limitations of the data, we failed to find any evidence contrary to our conclusions and suggest this little-studied species needs additional focused research and conservation in North America.

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