The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tufted Titmice are a most lively little bird
by Ro Wauer

Along with Carolina wrens and cardinals, the little tufted titmice are one of most vocal songsters. Their loud “peter peter peter” songs can be expected in every oak grove throughout our area. They also sing a harsh “day day day” song, and may even give scolding “tsee-eep” or “seja-wer” calls on occasions. Although their loud mouth behavior can equal that of the wrens and cardinals, their appearance is in direct contrast with that of the male cardinal. They lack any bright colors, but are a rather drab gray, although a closer view will reveal buff-colored flanks. And their erect crest, short bill, and large black eyes give them a bit more character. But what they may lack in appearance, their personality is rather special.

Tufted titmice are inquisitive birds, moving about the tree foliage as well as the trunks and branches, constantly foraging for food. At times they will cling to tree trunks like chickadees, probing bark crevices. At other times they may descend to the ground where they hop about hunting insects. Their flight, as described by Harry Oberholser in “The Birds Life of Texas,” is “bounding, quick, irregular, and accompanied often by spreading of the tail.” And they may be bold enough to come to water or a seed feeder even while you are standing nearby. They seem to love water, either drinking directly from a dripper or a birdbath. Bathing seems to occur irregularly.

Titmice and chickadees are members of the Family Paridae that includes only five species in Texas: tufted, black-crested and juniper titmice and Carolina and mountain chickadees. All are little active birds that utilize cavities for their nest sites, such as natural cavities, woodpecker holes and even nest boxes. Tufted titmice normally mate for life, they line their nest cavity with leaves, moss, snake skins and hair, and she will lay five to seven eggs. Last year’s young will sometimes help with nest-construction. But the female does most of the incubation, although he will feed her a good part of the time she is on the nest. Both parents feed the young that will fledge in about two weeks. The nestlings are fed all types of invertebrates from insects to spiders. The adults will also take seeds and in fall will utilize acorns that they break open with sharp thrushes of their bill.

In spite of mating for life, the adults will sometimes split up during the winter months, joining various bird parties. Birders will often zero in on the those bird parties in winter, that may include a dozen on more birds of various species, because of the loud calls of the titmice. Apparently, the multi-species parties, containing birds that utilize different behaviors while foraging, provide greater opportunities for discovering food, benefiting all members of the party. This behavior is true not just in North America, but southern titmice species play the same role in the tropics.

The range of tufted titmice includes all of eastern North America, south to about the San Antonio River. And black-crested titmice occur to the south and west to the Big Bend Country. These two species were earlier lumped together, but more recent studies have proven they are two different species. This is true even though they do hybridize where their territories overlap. So, our area in South Texas may produce both forms, the plain tufted titmice and the titmice with a black crest. Both possess similar vocalizations and behavior. Both are lively, personable birds.