Bird Observer - The New England Birding Journal

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

February 2018

Vol. 46, No. 1

Front Cover: February 2018

Tufted Titmouse by William E. Davis, Jr.


Tufted Titmouse by William E. Davis, Jr.

Ted Davis is a retired Boston University professor who remains active in ornithological field research, mostly in Australia. He also is interested in the history of ornithology and has written or edited 15 books on the subject. As an artist, Ted has illustrated three books and has over the years contributed more than a hundred line drawings to the pages of Bird Observer. Ted has been on the Bird Observer editorial staff since 1985, as Cover Art Editor since 1991. He has selected the art, and written the ABOUT THE COVER stories for more than 150 Bird Observer covers. He also has contributed more than 80 articles, book reviews, and field notes to the pages of Bird Observer. Ted served on the Board of Directors of Board Observer from 1986–2002, and as President from 1990–1997.

Tufted Titmouse

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a common songbird that has expanded its range through most of New England in the past 60 years, possibly due to climate change and an increased presence of winter birdfeeders. Tufted Titmice are bluish gray above with lighter gray below highlighted with rusty flanks. The sexes are similar, having a prominent crest, a blackish forehead, and a pale ring around their dark eyes. Juvenile titmice lack the blackish face. Until 2002 the Tufted Titmouse was considered conspecific with the Black-crested Titmouse (B. atricristatus) in the southwestern U.S. No subspecies of B. bicolor are currently recognized.

Tufted Titmice are resident throughout their range, which includes most of the eastern half of the United States from Maine to South Florida, west through much of the Great Lakes region, and south through West Texas and northeastern Mexico. Local concentrations suggest that they may be periodically nomadic in response to bumper beech and mast crops. In Massachusetts, the Tufted Titmouse is a common resident of deciduous forests and woodlands throughout the state. It was listed as ‘Hypothetical' in 1955 and the first nest was not discovered in the state until 1958. By the 1980s, Tufted Titmice were common. For example, more than a thousand were recorded on the Concord Christmas Bird Count as early as 1990.

Both male and female titmice give a variety of calls, but usually only males sing the familiar peter peter peter song. The songs and calls are complex in structure and rate of utterance. The song presumably serves for territorial advertisement and mate attraction. Males defend their territory and will actively chase intruders away. Territories are held throughout the year, by individual pairs during the summer, and in winter by small local groups or flocks that will aggressively chase non-group intruders. Pairs may remain stable for more than one breeding season. Strangely, the breeding biology of this common and easily observable species is not well known. Little is known of their courtship behavior other than males are known to engage in courtship feeding from the time of nest-site selection through incubation.

Tufted Titmice nest mostly in natural cavities and woodpecker holes in deciduous trees in forests, woodlands, swamps, and suburban areas. Nests have been found from three to nearly 100 feet above the ground in a wide variety of trees, and pairs may reuse the same nest in successive seasons. The nest is composed of grass, leaves, moss, and bark and is lined with hair, cotton, wool, or other fine material. The usual clutch is five or six white eggs with a fine spotting of darker color. Only the female incubates for the 12 to 14 days until hatching. The adults remove the egg shells from the nest after hatching. The young are altricial; their eyes are closed and they are nearly naked. By ten days of age, their eyes are fully open and their bodies are covered with feathers. They fledge in fifteen or sixteen days. Both parents feed the young. In a rare behavior for parids, Tufted Titmouse young remain with their parents throughout their first winter, joining the local flock, and don't leave until well into their second year. They also remain with their parents during the succeeding breeding season, and may become helpers, joining their parents in feeding the next batch of young birds.

Tufted Titmice forage primarily by gleaning foliage, but also hang-glean, hover-glean, and probe and peck bark. They forage in trees at all levels but also spend considerable time foraging on the ground. They open seeds by pounding them with their bills, and their diet also consists of about two-thirds insects, including an eclectic array of caterpillars, beetles, hymenoptera, spiders, and other invertebrates. About one-third of their food is vegetable, mostly seeds, including sunflower seeds from birdfeeders, often caching them in crevices on tree trunks and branches. They usually remove the shells before caching the seeds.

Tufted Titmice are subject to predation by domestic cats, snakes, hawks, owls, and any of the other usual predators. As cavity nesters they are vulnerable to deforestation. Nonetheless, Tufted Titmice have adjusted well to suburban conditions, readily utilizing winter birdfeeders and expanding their range northward through the years. Hence, they are probably safe into the indefinite future.

William E. Davis, Jr.

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