September is a month of change in the bird world, yet one
five-inch sprite remains constant in my yard. This crested gray bird with rust-colored
flanks continues to visit my bird feeder for sunflower seed and peanuts. I can count on
the tufted titmouse being there to tell me that all is right in my world and his.
who study bird populations say there are more birds around in September than in any other
month of the year. This is surprising. One would think that May would be so designated
when northward migration is at its peak and the world is full of singing birds.
In September, birds are flying south to the insect-rich tropics. These flocks contain
adult birds plus young from the previous breeding
season. Resident populations those species that do not make the long, hazardous
flight to the tropics are also swollen by both surviving adults and young produced
that summer. Though most of the birds from up north that winter in the southeastern states
will arrive in October, the movement south begins in September.
In the ninth month, one
day in the life of a bird is often very different from the one preceding it. Any change in
the weather brings a shift in bird populations. Still, the tufted titmouse continues to
visit the feeder regularly and punctuate the day with his affirmative, two-syllable calls.
Titmice, like cardinals, mockingbirds and Carolina wrens, are expanding their ranges
north into the New England states. In the early part of the last century, the tufted
titmouse or tomtit, as he was called then was regarded strictly as a bird of
the southeastern states.
Why Expand Their Range?
Reasons for this northward movement are not clear. Some researchers consider it as an
indication of a warming trend. Others tie the range expansion to the proliferation of bird
feeders that enable birds to survive cold and snowy weather because of a plentiful supply
of sunflower seeds. Otherwise, nature would take its toll and many individuals would not
survive below-zero temperatures when the ground is covered by snow and ice. Tufted titmice
are classified as resident species; they remain in one area year after year. No long
distance and hazardous flights to the insect-rich American tropics for Parus bicolor.
This perky sprite changes diets with the seasons; insects in the summer and seeds and
berries in the winter.
Titmice commence their responsibilities to reproduce themselves early, for they are
competing with other cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds, nuthatches and chickadees.
There is great rivalry for suitable nest sites.
Because of the early nesting, young titmice are often out of the nest by the end of
May. Surviving young and parents stay as a family group right through the summer and well
into the fall. For a time, young titmice quiver their wings and beg for food from adults
long after they are able to find their own.
In November the titmouse family joins a winter flock of other resident species such as
chickadees, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. Kinglets and brown creepers winter
residents that have nested farther north also join the loose flock that moves
through woodlands and thickets in a constant search for food.
There are two advantages to belonging to a winter flock. Ten or twelve pairs of eyes
are more effective than a single pair in spotting insect eggs on a tree trunk or the
bright winter berries of spicebush, holly and catbriar.
The other advantage is perhaps more important. Should one titmouse or chickadee spot a
fierce and hungry sharp-shinned hawk or an owl dozing through the day, he or she alerts
the others, who then either freeze into immobility to escape detection or mob the
intruder, creating such noise and confusion that the hawk cannot focus on one for the
Time to Settle Down
By the end of February, titmice leave the flock. Males begin to declare territorial
rights by constantly calling pe-to, pe-to, pe-to. Even on a winter day sharp
with cold he can be heard declaring all rights to insect eggs hidden on tree trunks
and all possible cavities for nesting.
Knot holes in trees, nest boxes, and abandoned woodpecker holes offer excellent nesting
sites for the tufted titmouse. A female is enticed into the territory by the males
frequent and loud proclamations. She begins to build her nest.
It is in the choice and manner of acquisition of a lining for its nest that the tufted
titmouse displays behavior that has brought the little bird to our attention. Tomtit
requires hair or fur to complete a nest built of moss, shed snake skin and dry leaves. Fur
is gathered from dead mammals; rabbits, woodchucks and squirrels are deemed choice. If the
mammal is not dead, the little gray bird does not hesitate to gather a billfull from a
There are a number of accounts of the tomtit landing on a persons head and either
pulling out hair or snipping it off neatly with the bill.
I am not sure I would have the discipline the self-control to remain
still while a titmouse pulled or snipped hairs from my head. I would welcome the challenge
to test myself, however. It would give me pleasure to make a contribution to future
generations of tufted titmice.