By Bryan Stevens
Don’t dismiss our feathered friends as “bird brains.” They’re smart. They demonstrate that fact in various ways.
For an impish cousin of the chickadee, that intelligence shines through when they visit my feeders. I’m referring to the tufted titmouse, a curious sprite with some mischievous tendencies.
When I go outdoors to fill the feeders with another helping of black oil sunflower, the titmice appear seemingly out of the woodwork or, in their case, out of the woods. Small flocks of titmice show up and perch in the branches of nearby tree and watch me at my task.
There’s also a fascinating and ingrained hierarchy regarding which titmouse gets to approach the feeder first. I’m not aware of how they come to their mutually understood ranking, but when one of their number transgresses, the offense can set off a round of bitter scolding. I’ve also seen two titmice accidentally arrive at a feeder at the same time. When that happens, one of the birds will usually flinch and depart. After the higher-ranking individual grabs a seed and leaves, the other bird can return.
It’s all neat and orderly. In the long run, this structure probably prevents needless waste of energy on birds coming into conflict. Winter’s a lean time. Although the birds can count on my supplemental source of food, they continue to act as if there are no guarantees.
Although they’re most prevalent in the winter, titmice are present throughout the year. Like chickadees and bluebirds, they are cavity-nesting birds and will gladly take up nesting duties inside a bird box.
They are one of the first and most enthusiastic birds to greet the spring with joyous song each year. The tufted titmouse’s song — a persistent repetition of “Peter! Peter! Peter!” — rings through the woodlands around my home along with the urgent “fee-be fee-bo” of the Carolina chickadee. These birds form mixed flocks with each other and other species to explore their surroundings and search for food.
In addition to singing, titmice are enthusiastic scolders. They will scold over any transgression, real or imagined, focusing their ire on their fellow titmice or other birds, potential predators and even human observers. They’re quite persistent at their raucous scolding, which is just another reason I label them as imps of the woods.
In appearance, the tufted titmouse is a drab bird that could easily slip beneath the radar. The bird’s appearance does, however, offer a few distinctive qualities. Although mostly a gray bird, the titmouse sports a distinctive crest and a rusty-pinkish coloration along the flanks. Titmouse eyes are black as coal and look large in proportion to their heads, which lends them an expressive appearance as they explore in yards and gardens.
The term “titmouse” refers to the old English word “tit” meaning “small,” as well as the old English “mase,” also a reference to small size. Probably because of the bird’s small size and gray coloration, “mase” evolved into “mouse” and combined to form the word “titmouse.”
The titmice living in my yard visit my house windows at times, which drives my cats to distraction. I’ve wondered if the titmice are curious and trying to peek inside the house, but I believe I have a more down-to-earth explanation. These little birds are very thorough when foraging for food, and I’ve watched them pluck spiders and other insects from the window frames.
Like chickadees, titmice are fond of sunflower seeds. No other offering will so readily lure them to feeders, although they do develop a fondness for suet cakes. I’ve also had success attracting titmice to my feeders by offering unsalted, shelled peanuts. I sometimes break up the peanuts into smaller, more manageable pieces for the benefit of the titmice. These foods and a few trees or saplings around your home is all you really need to welcome titmice.
In the early 1900s, the tufted titmouse would have been considered a southern bird with its stronghold in states like Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Perhaps it was the titmouse’s innate curiosity that pushed the species to expand successfully beyond the southern United States. The titmouse has steadily expanded its range northward, thriving in new locations. Some experts credit this expansion to more readily available access to supplemental food at feeders.
During the nesting season, titmice forage for a variety of insects. Many spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other small bugs will be fed to hungry young titmice in a tree cavity or a nesting box. Like chickadees, titmice build exquisite nests, often using mostly moss with other materials, such as bark, cloth scraps, dry leaves and shed snakeskins. These small birds line their nests with hair or fur of other animals.
Over the years, many readers have shared observations documenting the fur-collecting skills of tufted titmice. The birds are not content to simply collect shed fur. They seem to prefer collecting the fur fresh from a living animal. Many dogs fall victim to impish titmice that boldly pluck strands of fur from the canine’s coat.
In another funny story, a woman once told me about a titmouse that flew onto her head every time she stepped outside her home. Perhaps the bird sensed her affection for birds since it never failed to pluck strands of hair from her head to carry back to its nest. For any would-be skeptics, the woman provided photographic documentation of the incidents. In addition to dogs and humans, animals ranging from squirrels and opossums to mice and woodchucks have also been observed “sacrificing” fur for the nesting success of tufted titmice.
The female tufted titmouse incubates the eggs. She lays between three and nine eggs, although a usual clutch size is five to six eggs. The female titmouse is protective of her nest and is known for a behavior known as a “snake display.” I’ve observed titmice perform this display when I’ve peeked into nesting boxes. She remains tightly seated on her eggs, or young, while she hisses loudly and strikes in a manner very much like a striking serpent. Not all titmice engage in this display. Some remain still and try to “blend” with the nest, while others will fly away if a nest box is opened. Regardless, it’s a convincing display of bravado on the part of such a small bird. If it looks scary to people, I am sure it could succeed at repelling a squirrel or mouse. I’m uncertain if the behavior would deter an actual snake.
Other titmice in North America include bridled titmouse in Arizona and New Mexico; oak titmouse of the Pacific Coast region; juniper titmouse from the Great Basin, which consists of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California; and the black-crested titmouse, which ranges from Missouri into east-central Mexico.
Titmice occur exclusively in North America and belong to the genus Baeolophus. Europe, Asia and Africa are home to some other crested birds in the family of chickadees and titmice. For instance, the European crested tit and the grey crested tit are species that sport a crest of feathers like titmice but are more closely related to chickadees.
The tufted titmouse, for the reasons I’ve mentioned and more, is one of nature’s imps, but it’s also an entertaining neighbor. Get to know these visitors by offering sunflower seeds or other fare and, if you want to go the extra step, place some bird boxes around your yard as potential nesting sites. By next winter, you may have an entire flock of these feathered imps as your guests.
Need a last-minute Christmas gift? The Elizabethton Bird Club is selling its 2022 bird calendar again this holiday season.
The front cover features a stunning photo of a chestnut-sided warbler. The inside pages of the professionally produced calendar feature dozens more full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid.
These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.
For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at [email protected] or stop by the office of The Erwin Record at 218 Gay St., Erwin.