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Nature Notes: Tufted Titmouse

Ed Robinson
February 4, 2020
Tufted Titmouse (Photo by Steve Byland, iStock)

If you have installed bird feeders for the winter, you are enjoying a range of visitors by now. Most days are filled with song sparrows, black-capped chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers and the fast-moving nuthatches. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have some Eastern bluebirds or delicate goldfinches in the neighborhood. We seem to attract more than our share of crows and blue jays, who make a racket and stir up the other birds with their aggressive behavior.

Once in a while I enjoy a visit by a graceful bird dressed in elegant gray “tails” as if on the way to a formal dance. It’s the tufted titmouse, a relative of the chickadees and several other titmice. With a stocky shape and a confident attitude, the six-inch-long bird is often seen in mixed flocks with chickadees, kinglets and nuthatches, flitting among tree branches or hopping along the ground in search of food. They are quick to investigate if other birds are making a racket, and will join a mob of birds chasing predators.

While some songbirds are blessed with a wealth of color, even when not in their breeding plumage, others possess more subtle beauty. The titmouse is one of these, with silvery gray the predominant color over a light-colored neck and belly and a thin rust-colored band running along the sides just under the wings. The counter to the gray is black–displayed as accents along the wings and long tail, the eyes, the short, stout bill and a small “mustache” on the forehead just above the bill. A jaunty crest on the back of the head surely led to the “tufted” name. The males and females dress alike in this species and by any standard it is a handsome bird.

It is easy to recognize the music of the tufted titmouse in spring when it is seeking a mate. We had one in residence last year and he was persistent in broadcasting his amorous call to the neighborhood. The most common song consists of two to four whistled phrases that sound like “peter peter peter.” It can be quite distinct and carries for some distance. Another song sounds to me a bit like a wolf whistle. The bird has several calls including one that sounds like “jwee jwee jwee” and a soft hissing sound like “tsit.”

The male tufted titmouse not only looks like a gentleman, he acts the part. He is given to feeding his lady friend during courtship and through the nesting process. It is common for the male to help in feeding the young and a pair may remain together for the full year. The female takes a week or more to build a nest in small cavities, generally in trees up to ninety feet tall, but she may use nest boxes, pipes or fence posts if the setting is to her liking. The cup-shaped nest consists of leaves, moss, grasses and bark strips with a soft lining of fur, feathers or fabric. Birds have even been observed plucking hair from live animals and humans, so keep your hat on when watching the show!

There is one brood per year made up of three to nine eggs. The female will incubate the eggs for up to two weeks, and the nestlings remain in the nest for the first two weeks of life before taking flight. In an unusual display of family loyalty, yearling birds have been observed staying with the family group and helping to feed the juvenile birds. While the average life span might be little more than two years, the birds have been known to live as long as 10 years.

The tufted titmouse is focused on insects for much of its diet, with caterpillars their preferred food in summer. Beetles, ants, wasps, stink bugs, snails, seeds and spiders round out the menu in warm weather. In autumn, berries, acorns and beech nuts provide important nutrients ahead of cold weather. When visiting bird feeders in winter, tufted titmice have been observed holding large seeds between their feet while hammering away with their stout beak to open the shell. Like chickadees, the titmice will hoard food in bark crevices on nearby trees hoping to ensure supplies in case you forget to refill your feeder before you flee to Florida for mud season!

Maine is the northern edge of the tufted titmouse’s territory, and they are found throughout the American southeast and as far west as Texas and Kansas. They can be found in deciduous and mixed deciduous/conifer forests below 2,000 feet in elevation. The North American Breeding Bird Survey documented an annual increase of 1.5 percent in the tufted titmouse population between 1966 and 2015. Partners in Flight estimates the current population at eight million birds, almost all in the continental US, although the bird has expanded its territory in recent decades. A warming climate, habitat changes and an increase in bird feeders may be enabling the bird’s ability to survive northern winters. The bird is not considered at risk of population decline at this point.

Look for the little gray gent in his silver tuxedo!

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