The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Learning the Birds
Today's Bird -- The Titmouse
Ruth Beasley, June 12, 2004, The Canadian Record, © 2004

Today's bird doesn't get talked about that much, at least not in polite conversation. It may be because this bird's name is somewhat, well, problematic. The bird in question is the Titmouse, and as far as names go, it is clearly on the awkward side. The most common nickname I could find is tomtit, and that's not much better.

But what are we to do? It is all well and good for some lofty ornithologist to go around saying words like "Titmouse", but for us ordinary folks it takes a bit of courage.

I plan to get on with it, though, since a Titmouse is a bird worth knowing about and so worth mentioning, however awkwardly. Still, it does seem that every time I say that name, I hear the sound of adolescent giggles.

To be fair, the name refers to an old German word for anything small and dainty, whether object, animal, or person --- in particular, a small German girl.

The Titmouse family includes Chickadees, Bushtits, and Verdin. All are small congenial acrobatic birds with strong legs and cone-shaped bills.

But Chickadees and Bushtits have heads as round as Charley Brown's, while a Titmouse head has a point. The silhouette of a Titmouse is a bit like a Cardinal, except that a Cardinal can be said to wear a crest. A Titmouse wears more of a dunce cap than a crest, and the bird is, in every way, more comical and less grand.

In fact, a Titmouse is a bird so cute, you almost hate to mention it. They are the kind of adorable birds only a real man could love. At about 6 inches, they're a bit larger than the chickadees and goldfinches in whose company they are often found.

There are several styles: there are Tufted, Bridled, Black-Crested, and Plain. The Plain Titmouse is a smooth gray overall, unadorned but for that pointed head.

The Tufted Titmouse is all dressed up, with a rust-colored vest thrown open over an impeccable white shirt, and a formal slate-gray topcoat with a black lining. His tuft is gray, but he has a spot of black right in the middle of his forehead.

Black-Crested Titmice have a black crest, but are otherwise dressed like the tufteds, in a suit of tasteful gray. In Texas, the Black-Crested Titmice are found so frequently in Palo Duro Canyon that Paloduro was briefly their official name.

Titmice do not migrate in an ordinary year, and in winter they comb the trees for hibernating insects and hidden insect eggs. They do like seeds and berries too, and can be readily drawn to a feeder.

In winter they nest in abandoned Woodpecker holes, crowding together for warmth. If they enjoy these winter homes, they'll revamp them into nurseries in the spring.

The mortality rate of Titmice is high --- to survive they lay two large broods every year. Many a small flock of Titmice is made up of one great big extended family: two parents and several sets of siblings, keeping close together in cold weather.

So keep your eyes open for gregarious pointy-headed birds that are exceedingly cute. And practice saying that name with a straight face and no giggling, for there are many awkward names in Bird World to master. There's a Wren-Tit, a Siberian Tit, and the Great Tit, too (which proves it's not always easy to talk about the birds!)

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