Tufted Titmouse

Baeolophus bicolor

I cannot remember why we first started putting peanuts out on the deck. It may have been as a peace offering to the squirrels. “If we give them something else to eat, maybe they will leave the feeders alone.” That was nice in theory, however, the squirrels showed little interest in the peanuts. Sunflower seeds in large quantities appeared to be the only peace offering they were interested in.

However, the peanuts did not sit there for very long. Soon, we had a crowd of Tufted Titmice frequenting the deck. One of the names for a group of this species is a “Banditry of Titmice”. That made perfect sense as we watched them come back over and over again, making off with at least one peanut each time. “They can’t be eating those that quickly,” I thought. It was then that I realized just how little I knew about this very common bird.

The Tufted Titmouse is common around here at least. According to The Second Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia, this species nests in all Maryland counties. And since they usually live their entire lives within a few kilometers of their place of birth, Tufted Titmice can be seen pretty much everywhere in the State throughout the year. They always show up in good numbers on the Carroll County bird counts.

So, I was a little surprised when I started reading the first source I consulted on this species to find the author claiming how rare the Tufted Titmouse was. I had bought a used copy of Birding from a Tractor Seat the last time I was in Cape May. This was a good time to consult the pithy comments written by practicing farmer (and birder) Charles T. Flugum. According to Flugum, the Tufted Titmouse had only recently become a visitor at some of the feeders in his area. I checked the book’s publication date. It was 1975. A quick read of the author’s introduction cleared things up. Flugum lived in Minnesota.

Tufted Titmice range widely across the United States, from Florida and Texas in the south to Michigan and Maine in the north. They even breed in Mexico now. However, they still don’t like Minnesota. Who can blame them? It gets really cold out there.

 

tufted titmouse
Tufted Titmouse (Photo by Dave Harvey)

 

This time of year, it can almost seem like Minnesota around here. Tufted Titmice are frequent visitors to our feeders. You usually hear one before you see one. Their familiar “Peter, Peter, Peter” call is relatively easy to discern, although Arthur Cleveland Bent claimed that he would sometimes confuse this with the call of the Carolina Wren or Northern Cardinal. They also make other less lovely sounds reminiscent of a Carolina Chickadee.

Overall, Tufted Titmice are rather lack luster in the feather department. Sexes look alike. They are mostly gray above, but have a black patch on their foreheads (missing in young birds) and rusty flanks. They also have a crest of feathers on their heads. In fact, measuring about six inches, they are the smallest crested bird in the Eastern United States. Watching the crest can tell you something of the bird’s mood. When held erect, it generally signifies alarm or disturbance of some type.

As Charles Flugum watched this species feeding in Winter, he was impressed by the way it covered parts of the trees left untouched by some of the other species. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and Brown Creepers would carefully probe the trunks and large tree branches for adult insects, pupae, and eggs, but they were ill suited for hanging from the “finer parts of trees’, namely the small branches and twigs. The Tufted Titmouse, however, was able to “cling to swinging, swaying branches while searching twigs to their very tips, often hanging upside down in the process.”

And what were these birds eating? Being a farmer, Flugum was most impressed by the fact that the Tufted Titmouse could eat a lot of aphid eggs. Their “small sharp beaks and barbed tongues” also enabled then to detach and eat many scale insects that would otherwise have sucked the vital fluids from the plants they were infesting.

I can tell you from personal experience that Tufted Titmice also eat a lot of peanuts. Then again, I rarely see one eating them. Usually, they are just making off with them. That is because, like some other species, Titmice cache food. They store it someplace for future use. According to one study, Tufted Titmice shell and hide seeds somewhere within 130 feet of the feeder from which they take they. 46% of the time the seeds are stuffed under the loose bark of a tree somewhere. The remainder find their way into other cracks and holes. No doubt, other birds and rodents take advantage of the Titmouse’s thrifty nature.

Sometime I will see one actually eating a peanut or a sunflower seed. The Tufted Titmouse is one of the few passerines in our area that can hold a seed in its feet while attempting to open it. Supposedly, one will always choose the largest sunflower seed available to it. That makes sense.

The bird’s diet changes, of course, during the nesting season. Tufted Titmice typically begin establishing breeding territories in early Spring. These usually run between two and five acres in size. The males will be quite vocal at this time, spending a good bit of their time chasing off rivals and pursuing females. Once mating has occurred and nesting begins in April and May, the birds will become suddenly very quiet.

Unlike the Carolina Chickadee which will generally excavate its own nest, Tufted Titmice take advantage of natural cavities or holes made by woodpeckers. Sometimes a pair may use the same cavity year after year. It is the female who does most of the initial housekeeping work. She brings leaves, moss, and grasses to line the nest, along with other more exotic materials. These latter may include fur, string, discarded snake skins, or even human hair.

Possibly the funniest stories about Tufted Titmice have to do with their taking of hair for their nests. Arthur Cleveland Bent relates a tale from E. Irwin Smith, originally published in a 1924 issue of Bird-Lore. Mr Smith was seated on a stump at the edge of the woods when he noticed a Tufted Titmouse flitting around his head:

“It flew back into the bushes, only to return and flutter above my head as before. Yet the third time it came back, but this time, instead of flying away again, it lit on my head, and, in a very diligent manner, began to pick the hairs therefrom. The pricking of its sharp little toes on my scalp and the vigor of the hair-pulling was a trifle too much for my self-control, and I instinctively moved my head. Away it flew, but only for a moment, and then it was back at work, harder than before.”

The moral of that story is to wear a hat! (Fortunately, many of our male club members do not have that much hair on the tops of their heads to be tempting to a Titmouse.)

Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Ornithological Society

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