For The Birds

The Ever-Present Tufted Titmouse
by John Trott, Contributing Columnist

In November, the tufted titmouse joins a winter flock of other resident species that moves through the woodlands in a constant search for food.
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.

Researchers 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 kill.

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 male’s 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 living critter.

There are a number of accounts of the tomtit landing on a person’s 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.


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