A year-round resident of eastern forests, the Tufted Titmouse is common and familiar for its ready acceptance of bird feeders and nest boxes. The Tufted Titmouse often joins mixed species foraging flocks in the winter and will quickly investigate owl calls or mobs of other songbirds.
Some breeding pairs of Tufted Titmice have helpers to assist in feeding the young. These are often the young from a previous brood. While a typical lifespan for a Tufted Titmouse is about two years, some have lived as long as 13 years.
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Description of the Tufted Titmouse
The Tufted Titmouse is gray above and whitish below, with buffy-orange (sometimes almost pinkish or rusty) flanks, a gray crest, and a black forehead. Length: 6 in. Wingspan: 10 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adults.
Tufted Titmice are common in woodlands, parks, and suburban yards where mature trees are present.
Tufted Titmice eat insects and seeds, and frequently visit bird feeders.
Titmice actively forage among branches, sometimes going to the ground as well. They also visit bird feeders, and especially in winter will associate in loose flocks with other species such as chickadees and nuthatches.
Tufted Titmice are found in the eastern half of the United States and Mexico. The Tufted Titmouse has expanded its range northward in recent decades. The population has increased slightly in that time.
To collect fur or hair to line their nest, titmice have been known to land on small mammals, dogs, and even people and pull hair right out of the hapless donor.
Tufted Titmice will sometimes use nest boxes, affording observers an easy way to monitor the eggs and young.
The song of the Tufted Titmouse is usually given as “peter peter peter”. A variety of whistled call notes are also given.
Oak and Juniper Titmice are a mostly uniform, gray-brown color. Ranges do not overlap.
The Black-crested Titmouse, found primarily in Texas, is very similar but has a black crest in addition to a black forehead.
Placed in natural cavities or old woodpecker holes, the nest consists of bark strips, moss, and grass, and is padded with hair, string, or snake skins.
Number: Usually lay 3-6 eggs.
Color: White or cream and are finely spotted with brown or purple.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-14 days and leave the nest in another 15-16 days.
Bent Life History of the Tufted Titmouse
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Tufted Titmouse – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
PARUS BICOLOR Linnaeus
As we travel southward, weary of the rigors of the northern winter and anxious to meet spring halfway, one of the first southern birds to greet us from the still leafless woods is this cheery little tomtit. Long before we reach the land of blooming jessamine, hibiscus, and oleanders, we may hear its loud, whistling peto, peto, welcoming us to his home in the southland.
To the novice, these notes may at first seem to bear a resemblance to the three-syllabled notes of the Carolina wren or to the spirited whistles of the cardinal, which one hears so frequently all through the southern States. I have sometimes been puzzled, when hearing them for the first time each season, but one soon learns to recognize them, for all three are quite distinct. Being a rather noisy bird and rather somberly colored, the tufted titmouse is generally heard before it is seen, though it is not particularly shy. We may look for it with best success in the deciduous woods.
In Pennsylvania, near the northern limit of its range, according to Dr. Samuel S. Dickey (MS.), it is oftener found in beech timber, where its coloration harmonizes and where it finds congenial openings in trunks and branches for nesting purposes. “But it will inhabit a variety of cover in modern times, and is found among oaks, tulip poplars, yellow locusts, sycamore, and thickets of mixed saplings, as well as orchards.”
In the Middle West and southward it frequents the river-bottom forests in spring and summer but wanders about at other seasons in more open areas, among the shade trees and about houses in the villages. In the Gulf States and Florida it is often found in the live oaks, which shade the streets of villages and towns, but its favorite haunts are the mixed hammocks and the smaller cypress swamps that are scattered through the flat pine woods; it is seldom seen in these flat woods outside of these little cypress heads.
Courtship: After wandering about all through fall and winter in small flocks by themselves, or mixed with other species, they begin their courtship activities early in spring and prepare to separate into pairs. Dr. Dickey (MS.) says that “males pursue and chase females among branches and often end up in brush piles. They will glide between avenues of trees along the courses of streams. Sometimes pairs thus continue up the forest-clothed flanks of slopes and cliffs. Males are combative, and are seen clasping and falling among vegetation. They will end up on the forest floor, there to part company and to continue their advances to the female of their choice.”
Nesting: As I have never been fortunate enough to find a nest of the tufted titmouse, I must rely on the observations of others. Dr. Dickey (MS.) writes to me, of the nesting habits in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as follows:
“Naturally tufted tits breed inside cavities, mostly in trees. They utilize both live and dead growth, often cavities that are surrounded with hard resistant wood. A number like to breed in knot holes, slits left where lightning has struck, and long weathered squirrels’ holes.
Not a few pairs inhabit the abandoned holes of downy, hairy, red-bellied, red-headed, and pileated woodpeckers and the cavities of the flicker. I have three records of their breeding in crude wooden bird boxes in town yards; and one instance was a hollow metal pipe, 4 inches in diameter, beside the yard of a farmhouse.”
He thinks this bird shows a preference for beech trees for nesting sites, but he has found nests in white, red, and blue oaks, tupelos, sycamores, pines, hemlocks, apple trees, mulberries, water and sugar maples, yellow locusts, white ashes, and chestnuts. “It will come out from cover and nest in fence posts along roads and borders of fields, and occasionally it selects some stub or post in an open pasture. The run of pairs prefer the woods in which to breed, but not a few enter and nest in orchards, groves, parks, and even shade trees along community streets. Nests are found at both low and high elevations; they range from 3 feet up to as many as 85 or 90 feet. They will continue to use the identical cavity for years, if unmolested.
“Nest building begins late in April, although birds are seen to carry odd leaves and trash into holes even as early as late in March. They begin by carrying in strips of bark and dead deciduous leaves; those of white oak and maple are common. Then they add sprays of green moss and dry grass, and round out the interior with pads of hair from cattle, rabbit, deer mouse, and others, and bits of rags, strings, or cloth.”
In South Carolina, according to Wayne (1910), “this species deposits its eggs in natural cavities of trees or in the deserted holes of the smaller woodpeckers and does not appear to excavate a hole for itself. It seems to have a preference for hollows in chinquapin and dogwood trees, and the hole ranges from four to forty-five feet above the ground. While nest-building, the birds carry large quantities of material at every trip and one generally accompanies the other to and from the site. The nest is composed of wool, cotton, hair, leaves, fibrous bark and snake skins, the last material being indispensable to this species, as it is to the Crested Flycatcher. * * * The birds are the closest of sitters and have to be removed from the nest before it can be examined. Only one brood is raised and these follow the parents for many months.”
Mr. Wayne (1910) also tells of an unsuccessful attempt of a pair of these titmice to nest in a tuft of Spanish moss. The nest was built in a very large mass of the hanging moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and five eggs were laid, but a violent rainstorm occurred and the nest and eggs were blown out. The bird was undismayed, rebuilt the nest again in the same bunch of moss, and laid three eggs; but she was disappointed again, for another storm came up before the set was completed, and the nest and eggs were found on the ground the following day.
M. G. Vaiden, of Rosedale, Miss., reports an unusually lofty nest of the tufted titmouse that was located in a cavity of a black locust near there some 97 feet above the ground. Another nest was found in a gatepost about 8 feet up; it was composed of horsehair and a few feathers.
The nesting cavities occupied by this titmouse vary greatly in size and shape, which means that in some cases a large quantity of material has to be collected to fill up extra space. C. S. Brimley (1888) mentions a nest that he found in a hollow in a small dogwood, near Raleigh, N. C. ‘The opening of the hollow was about two feet from the ground, and the hollow reached to the earth, but for half the distance three sides of it were gone. So the birds had piled up moss, leaves, etc., from the ground right up into the hole and then lined the nest at the top with white cat fur and a few pieces of snakeskin, the eggs being at least eighteen inches from the bottom of the nest.”
The material used to fill up large cavities consists largely of leaves, preferably those that are damp enough to pack well without crumbling, but not too wet; these are picked up near a brook, or in some damp place in the woods. Lucy H. Upton (1916) made an interesting observation on the use of damp leaves by a titmouse that she was watching: “Having chosen a damp brown oak leaf from the ground, it flew with it into a bare tree, and, holding the leaf with its claw firmly against the branch, it drew itself to its full height, raised its head like a Woodpecker, and with all the might of its tiny frame gave a forcible blow to the leaf with its bill. This process was kept up nearly half an hour. * * * At last its purpose seemed to be accomplished. It rested, and lifted the leaf by the petiole. We then saw that the hammering had made it into a firm brown ball nearly as large as an oak gall.”
The bird flew away with the leaf and probably placed it in its nest.
Freda L. Hood (1916) adds by way of explanation, that these birds “line their nests with a pulpy substance not unlike a sponge. They carry a large number of these damp leaf-balls to their nest-hole and there pull them into shreds. * * * The Titmouse uses this sort of lining for its nest only when they build in damp weather. They do not seem to be able to use dry leaves in this manner.”
R. B. McLaughlin (1888) adds that about moist places “she gets a supply of green moss and mixes in a modicum of dirt. After she has accumulated the desired amount of such materials, we will find her at the bed of the flying squirrel (Pteromys volucella), or some other mammal which collects the thin inner bark of trees, and she does not hesitate to appropriate as much as she needs. Then she is off for the fanner’s barn, and any bunch of cornsilks about his granary is used. Again she is over where he curried his horse or butchered his pig, in quest of hair.”
But the titmouse is not content with picking up stray hairs, or even bunches of fur from dead animals, and often becomes bold enough to collect this needed nesting material from living mammals, including human beings.
J. Harris Reed (1897) noticed a tufted titmouse that was apparently trying to drive a red squirrel away. “The squirrel was lying flat on the tapper side of a large sloping limb, and the Titmouse would approach cautiously from behind and catch at its tail. It was not long before I noticed that the bird had collected quite a mouthful of the hairs, with which it flew off to a hole near by where it was deposited.”
Ward Reed (1927) writes: “While walking through the woods looking for Crows’ nests about the first of May, I came upon an unusual sight. On a branch of a tree a few feet from the ground sat a Woodchuck (Marmota monax), while bobbing up and down above it a tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) was engaged in plucking hair from its back. On a near-by twig the bird’s mate was perched, with its mouth already full of hair, and in a few minutes they flew away together.”
Mrs. Vitae Kite (1925) generously allowed an aggressive titmouse to help himself to some of her silvery locks. “Without the least warning he lit squarely on top of my head, giving me such a start that it was with great difficulty I controlled myself and sat still. At first I thought he was trying to frighten me away but soon changed my mind, when he began working and pulling at my hair with all his might. Now my hair has been very white for many years, but I still have plenty of it. and was more than willing to divide with this little bird, so I steadied myself and ‘held fast’ while that energetic ‘Tom’ had the time of his life gathering ‘wool’ to line his nest, for that was what I now felt sure he was doing. He didn’t seem to have much luck with the coils on top, so he worked around over my ear, where there were short loose hairs, and I could hear and feel him snip-snip as he severed them: not one by one, but in bunches, it seemed to me.”
Even man is not immune to such attacks, for E. Irwin Smith (1924) had a similar experience. He was seated on a stump on the edge of some woods, with his hat off, when he noticed a titmouse flitting about 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.”
Other somewhat similar cases have been reported, but the above will suffice to illustrate this strange habit.
Eggs: Four to eight eggs may be found in the nest of the tufted titmouse, but oftener there are either five or six. The eggs vary from ovate (commonly) to elongate-ovate, and there is practically no gloss. The ground color is usually pure white, but often creamy white, or rarely pale “cream color.” They are generally more or less evenly speckled all over the entire surface with very small spots or fine dots; often these markings are thickest at the larger end, where they are sometimes concentrated into a wreath; rarely this concentration is at the small end. The markings are in various browns, “hazel,” “cinnamon-rufous,” “vinaceous-rufous,” “burnt sienna,” or “chestnut”; some eggs have a few underlying shell markings of “lilac-gray” or “drab-gray.” The measurements of 50 eggs average 18.4 by 14.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.7 by 13.5, 18.5 by 14.7, 16.8 by 14.0, and 17.0 by 12.7 millimeters.
Young: Dr. Dickey (MS.) tells me that in several nests that he watched the period of incubation proved to be “exactly 12 days”; and he says that young remain in the cavity 15 or 16 days. A young bird, 4 days old, had a light salmon-pink body, with eyes only partly open, and was naked except for “feather tufts of dusky grey down” on the top of the head, at the base of the skull and in the middle of the back. When 6 days old, the “body had blue-gray down and rows of conspicuous slate-blue pin-feather shafts”; the eyes were now open. Two days later, “the gray down was falling away from head and sides; the hack mouse-gray; the flanks under back of wings tinged with light brown; pin-feather scabbards of wings not entirely unsheathed, but fast disintegrating.” When ten days old, the young were well feathered and closely resembled the adults, but they remained in the nest five days more.
Mrs. Margaret Morse Nice (1931) writes: “In the Wichita Reserve June 6, 1926, we discovered we had fastened our tent to a black jack in a cavity of which five fully feathered titmice were housed; happily the, parents accepted the situation with equanimity. I watched the nest from 2 to 4 P.M. the first day, from 10:40 to 12:10 the next. Despite the hot weather mother Tit brooded 3 and 8 minutes the first day, 8 and 15 the next, father in the meantime giving the food he brought to her. Both birds kept their crests depressed, both often twitched their wings: the female more than her mate: and both used a great variety of notes. During the first two hours IS meals were given, during the last hour and a half, seven.”
I cannot find it definitely so stated, but apparently incubating and brooding devolve mainly, if not wholly, on the female. Both sexes help to feed the young for some time after they leave the nest, and both young and old travel about together in a family party during summer, until they all join the mixed parties of their own and other species that roam the woods during fall and winter.
Plumages: The young nestling is mainly naked, except for a scanty covering of dusky, or bluish gray, down on the head and back. The development of the first plumage is outlined above. In full juvenal plumage, when it leaves the nest, the young is much like the adult, but all its colors are duller and less distinct, and the plumage is softer, less compact. The crest is not fully developed; the forehead is dusky rather than black and not so clearly defined against the gray of the crest and the white of the sides of the head; and the sides and flanks are tinged with pinkish buff, instead of the richer brown of the adult. A partial postjuvenal molt takes place in August, or later, which involves the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail. In this first winter plumage, young and old are practically indistinguishable; the crest is distinct, the forehead is black, the sides of the head are more decidedly white, and the sides and flanks have become a deep “russet” or “Mars brown.” There is apparently no spring molt. Adults have one complete annual, postnuptial molt in August. Adults in fresh fall plumage are more or less tinged with olive-brownish on the back and with pale buffy brownish on the chest. The sexes are practically alike in all plumages, but the colors of the adult female are usually somewhat duller than those of the male.
Food: The 186 stomachs of the tufted titmouse examined by Professor Beal (Beal, McAtee, and Kalmbach, 1916), were irregularly distributed throughout the year, and were considered by him too few “to afford more than an approximation of the bird’s economic worth.” However, the results show that, so far as his investigation goes, the bird is beneficial and has no bad food habits to offset the good it does.
The food consisted of 66.57 percent animal matter and 33.43 percent vegetable. He says that the food “includes one item, caterpillars, which form more than half the animal food, and two items, caterpillars and wasps, which are more than half of the whole food.” Beetles make up 7.06 percent, of which only one-tenth of 1 percent are useful species; the cotton-boll weevil was found in four stomachs. Ants are eaten occasionally, and other hymenopterous food, bees, wasps, and sawfly larvae, amounted to 12.5 percent. Other items include stink bugs, treehoppers, scales, only one fly, eggs of katydids, egg cases of cockroaches, spiders (found in 40 stomachs examined in May, 12.67 percent, only a trace in June, and in 3 stomachs in July, 16.33 percent, evidently a makeshift food), and a few snails. Caterpillars are the largest item, 38.31 percent of the whole food for the year. No grasshoppers or crickets were found.
Of the vegetable food, corn was discovered in one stomach, evidently taken on trial. Fruit was eaten to a moderate extent (5.15 per cent), mostly in midsummer, and included raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries, which might have been of cultivated varieties, but probably were not. The wild fruits were such as grow by the wayside and in swamps, as elderberries, hackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, and mulberries. Seeds of various kinds, as sumac: including poison ivy: bayberry, or wax myrtle, aggregate 4.07 per cent. It is difficult to draw the line between broken seeds and mast in stomachs of the tufted tit, but, together considered as mast, these form more than two-thirds of the vegetable food. While largely composed of acorns, there is no doubt that chinquapins and beechnuts and many smaller seeds enter into its composition. As thus defined, mast amounts to 23.4 per cent of the whole food, comprising 95 per cent of that eaten in November, 50.42 per cent in January, and 55.97 per cent in February; in fact, it is the principal vegetable food eaten from August to February. That such small birds should crush such hard nuts as acorns and chinquapins is surprising, but the broken fragments found in the stomachs well demonstrate their ability.
M. P. Skinner (1928) writes:
During the winter at least [in North Carolina], the favorite food of Titmice is the acorns supplied by the innumerable shrub oaks, post oaks and turkey oaks. From January to March, 1 found them hunting acorns, occasionally on the ground, but generally in the trees themselves. Quite often they knocked the acorn from its twig and then flew down to the ground after it. Titmice do not open their bills wide enough to admit the whole acorn, but they sometimes pick it up by its stem, or more often they simply spear the nut with their sharp, closed bill and fly up to a limb with it that way. Once on a suitable limb, the acorn is firmly held between the bird’s two feet and strong downward blows are rained upon it. This hammering is rapid and very effective, so that it does not take long to scale off the shell, and then the soft interior meat is eaten in small pieces. * * * At times they spring out after insects flying by them, and sometimes they tear the tent nests of caterpillars to pieces. On February 11, 1927, near the Mid Pines Club, a Titmouse picked up an oak apple an inch or more in diameter, carried it in its bill to the crotch of a tree and there dug through its half inch of tough material to feed on the hundred or so small white grubs in the center.
Dr. H. C. Oberholser (1896) saw one hammering away at a half-punctured cocoon of a Polyphermus moth. B. J. Blincoe (1923) saw one feeding on cultivated Concord grapes. Dr. Dickey (MS.) has seen it catch flying insects, including a small butterfly or moth; the wings of Lepidoptera are torn off and only the soft body is eaten. He includes wild cherries and service-berries in the food. Others have added dogwood berries and those of the Virginia-creeper. In winter, titmice will come readily to feeding stations to eat suet and bread and doughnut crumbs; a dish of water will also attract them. Mabel Gillespie (1930) says that the berries of the Japanese honeysuckle, alder seeds, and the seeds of tuliptree pods are favorite foods.
A. L. Pickens writes to me: “They are among the friendliest of all our southern birds, exceeding the Carolina chickadee by far. I have taught several individuals to take food from my hand. The great drawback is that they are so thrifty that they empty a food box and store all the surplus food before the more backward chickadees, wrens, and nuthatches arrive. For the last two forms I was able to overcome this difficulty by using a block instead of a box for the food. In this block I bored holes with a small auger. Then at the bottom of the holes I placed bits of nuts, and the wrens and nuthatches, with their longer beaks, were able to reach deeper than the titmice and so retrieve the food.”
Behavior: This lively little titmouse is one of the most popular of the southern birds, with its active, vivacious manners, as it flits about in the foliage of the trees, often banging head downward from some terminal cluster of leaves, or clings to the trunks and branches, searching in the crevices of the bark for its insect food. It attracts attention and endears itself to us with its tame, confiding manners, as it is not at all shy, but comes freely into our orchards and gardens, even close to houses, and partakes of our hospitality at our feeding stations; it appears utterly fearless of human presence. As Edmund W. Arthur (Todd, 1940) says:
We should probably ascribe to him without hesitation the first place in our hearts. He presents many claims to the rank of first nobleman of the forest realm. His presence is genial and pleasing, his plumage attractive, his alertness conspicuous; and his habits are good. * *
Each pair of tufted titmice has a domain of its own during mating season. Over this the birds exercise a jealous sway, at least in so far as errant titmice are concerned. Enter upon this domain and without too much fuss begin to whistle the titmouse challenge. Directly you will excite vigorous replies from the lord of the manor. If you persist: and you probably will: he will approach to within a few feet of you. If you carry in your hand a hat or a sizable piece of dark cloth or a box, his lordship seems to think you have another bird in captivity. He will shake himself as if with rage, or in defiance, and drop, scolding, almost within arm’s length, where as long as you continue to answer him, he will remain to scold and protest.
At other times, too, these inquisitive birds show their curiosity by reacting to the sound of human voices. Dr. Dickey tells me that they are “seen to react to the voices and noises made by road workers, drillers, and farmers. They hurry forward from shelter in twos or threes. Even when a visitor calls at the door of a house and starts to talk, then the titmouse arrives, evidently curious at a stranger in its habitat. I sometimes hesitate to wonder if such birds do not discriminate between the natives and strangers, for they have a sagacity that is hard to fathom.”
Mabel Gillespie (1930) gives them credit for great intelligence and individuality about her banding traps. She says that they quickly learned how to find their way out of the traps, “with no time lost in searching about for the entrance.” They repeatedly entered the trap, picked up some food, and went out again immediately, time after time. She says that she could not confuse them, as she often did other birds, by running toward the trap; for “approaching danger seems only to stimulate their keenness and composure, for they most containedly and successfully seek the exit at the first hint of hazard.” She thinks that this ability to find the exit so quickly is due to accuracy of memory, and relates the following incident to illustrate it: “During one night there was a fall of very soft snow, with a succeeding drop in temperature. The traps were all removed but one lest they should become frozen in the ice crust. After the freezing the outline of each trap was clearly visible in the crust. A Titmouse was seen to fly to the ground at the spot directly in front of the outlined mark of an entrance funnel. This showed that the bird clearly remembered the location of the funnel. Then, however, just as it was about to run forward, it appeared to realize that the trap was not there. The food was directly in front of the bird with no intervening obstruction. Yet the bird hesitated, looked about, and observed that another trap was in its accustomed place. It flew to this trap and entered for food.”
The above incident does illustrate accuracy of memory, but it also indicates suspicion of food under unusual conditions, or a sense of security in taking food from traps, based on past experience.
The tufted titmouse is quick and active in all its movements, flitting upward among the branches or gliding down between then, but it seldom indulges in long flights; its short flights from tree to tree, or across an open space, are undulating, irregular, much like that of a chickadee, it seems to me; but Dr. Dickey (MS.) calls it “rather precise; the short, rounded wings and well spread tail, with vibrating vanes, press the atmosphere.” It reminds him somewhat of the flight of the blue jay.
Voice: The notes of the tufted titmouse are many and varied, mostly loud and generally pleasing; it is a noisy bird. Aretas A. Saunders has sent me the following excellent notes on the subject: “The loud, whistled call of the tufted titmouse, commonly translated as peto, peto. is in about the same status as song as the phoebe whistle of the chickadee. That is, it is used by both sexes and, apparently, at almost any season of the year. Also, like the chickadee, the birds respond to an imitation and come to the imitator very readily.
“The song is loud, clear, and lower-pitched than the chickadee’s phoebe. It is also quite variable; I have a number of records and no two of them are alike. The song consists of a two-note phrase, repeated over and over three to eleven times, according to my records. The two-note phrase is more frequently with the first note high and the second low. The interval between may be one, one and one-half, or two tones. The pitch of the notes varies in different songs, or different individuals, from A” to A”‘, that is, between the highest two A’s on the piano. The majority of songs in my records are between E”‘ and C”‘.
“Sometimes the two-note phrase sounds like peto, at other times like wheedle or taydle. When the pitch goes up, instead of down, the phrase is ‘commonly written daytee; the same pitches and pitch intervals are common but it often sounds like toolee, and sometimes the first note is short, and it is like tleet or tlit. I have recorded all these variations in the field, writing down what each particular song sounded like to me at the time it was heard.
“An occasional phrase slurs down, like teeoh, and there are rarely phrases of three notes, such as wheedleoh, or of one note, whee, each repeated a number of times. Sometimes a song begins or ends with notes unlike the rest, as tidi, waytee, waytee, waytee, etc., or wheedle, wheedle, wheedle, whee, whee.”
Dr. Dickey (MS.) mentions a number of slightly different interpretations of some of the above notes, and adds some that are quite different, such as piper-tee, piper-tee, piper-tee; ah-peer, ah-peer; chee-chu, chee-chep; and wheep-did-er-ee, ending with purty-purty-purty.
Nuttall (1832) devotes considerable space to the voice of the tufted titmouse, and aptly remarks that “though his voice, on paper, may appear to present only a list of quaint articulations, * * * yet the delicacy. energy, pathos, and variety of his simple song, like many other things in nature, are far beyond the feeble power of description.” He mentions a very lively and agreeable call of ‘whip-t?m-k?lly-k?lly; and then, “in a lower, hoarser, harsh voice, and in a peevish tone, exactly like that of the Jay and the Chickadee, d?y-d?y-d?y-dáy, and day-d?y-d?y-day-dáit; sometimes this loud note changed into one which became low and querulous. On some of these occasions he also called ‘tshica dee-dee. The jarring call would then change occasionally into kai-tee-did did-dit-did.”
Several other observers have noted the resemblance of some of these notes to the notes of the Carolina chickadee. The single whistled call sounds like the whistle of a man calling his dog. It can readily be seen from a study of the above interpretations how easy is it for a novice to confuse the voice of the titmouse with that of the Carolina wren, the chickadee, or even the cardinal. All observers agree that the titmouse is a loud and persistent singer for nearly all the year; it is a joy to hear it tuning up in January, when so many other birds are silent. The song increases in frequency and intensity when the nuptial season approaches in February; early in spring its oft-repeated peto note is given so constantly that it may become monotonous and even tiresome. No wonder that the bird is locally known as the “Peter bird.”
Field marks: The tufted titmouse may be recognized as a small gray bird, less than English sparrow size, with a prominent, blackish crest, and chestnut-brown flanks. The colors are duller in the female than in the male, but otherwise they are much alike. Mr. Skinner (1928) suggests that “its big black eyes show a strong contrast to its trim gray plumage. * * * When the crest lies back on the crown, its long feathers stick out behind so that it is noticeable then as well as when erect.”
Enemies: Titmice are doubtless subject to attack by the ordinary enemies of all small birds, cats, hawks, owls, and snakes, but published records are not plentiful. The enterprising cowbird finds and enters the nesting cavity to deposit its unwelcome egg occasionally. Dr. Friedmann (1929) records four cases, and probably others have occurred since, but sometimes the entrance hole is too small for the parasite to enter.
Harold S. Peters (1936) lists, as external parasites on the tufted titmouse, two lice (Myrsidea incerta and Philopterus sp.), a mite (Trombicula irritans), and a tick (Hoemaphysalis leporis-palustris).
Fall and winter: Mabel Gillespie (1930), referring to the vicinity of Glenolden, Pa., writes: “During the late spring, summer, and early fall, Titmice tend to disappear. This disappearance indicates a period of retirement during nesting and the subsequent annual molt. At this season the birds are in the secluded depths of woods and are unaccustomedly silent. In the fall they appear in small groups, which, as far as they can be counted, vary from two to at least six. Presumably there is more or less wandering at this time, but the tendency apparently is to choose a favorable location in which to spend the winter, and then to remain within a rather limited area. * * * In winter small groups suggesting family units occupy very definite and limited areas, never overlapping.”
This last statement hardly agrees with the observations of several others; for instance, Dr. Dickey (MS.), referring to Pennsylvania and West Virginia. says: “Particularly in autumn and winter, tufted tits are rovers. They tend to assemble with such birds as Carolina chickadees, cardinals, various sparrows, several local woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, goldfinches, tree sparrows, and juncos. Bands of such species enter patches of weeds, flit along the courses of streams, cross country roads and highways, and peer forth from cover at farm yards. I was interested, during my many trips among these birds in fall and winter, to learn that often individuals roost, or spend dark drab days, inside orifices of woodpeckers and in natural cavities of posts and stubs. Not long ago I came upon a tit; it was drowsy and almost could be taken in the hand. Whether the species invariably roosts in such manner at night, I do not know, but I have read of campers routing the birds from holes in stubs.”
Several other observers have reported winter wanderings of titmice in association with such other species of winter gleaners as are named above. Mr. Skinner (1928) says that, in North Carolina in winter, “sometimes these Titmice seem to join with Chickadees, Juncos or White-throated Sparrows. With Fox Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Myrtle Warblers, their association is probably only accidental and very temporary.”
Tufted titmice are practically permanent residents in even the more northern portions of their range, being regularly found in winter as far north as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. Though largely woodland birds at all seasons, gleaning their food from the trunks and branches of trees, or rustling among the leaves on the ground, they are more inclined in winter to roam about in the open, or visit the neighborhood of houses, along with the chickadees and blue jays, to pick up scraps of refuse, or visit the well-stocked feeding stations. On the feeding shelf the tit seems to be the dominant character; only the blue jay refuses to make way for him.
Range: Eastern United States; not migratory. The range of the tufted titmouse extents north to central Iowa (Ogden and Independence); southern Wisconsin (Maxomanie and probably Racine); southern Michigan (Grand Rapids and Detroit); probably southern Ontario (London and Toronto); New York (Hamburg, Potter, and Goshen); and northern New Jersey (Mahwah and Englewood). The eastern limits extend south along the coast from New Jersey (Englewood), to southern Florida (probably Royal Palm Hammock). South to southern Florida (probably Royal Palm Hammock, Fort Myers, Tallahassee, and Choctawatchee Bay); Louisiana (New Orleans) ; and southeastern Texas (Houston and Giddings). West to eastern Texas (Giddings, Corsicana, Decatur, and Gainesville); Oklahoma (Norman, Arnett, and Copan); eastern Kansas (Wichita, Junction City, and Manhattan); and central Iowa (Ogden).
During summer the species has been recorded from eastern Nebraska (Red Cloud, Lincoln, and Neligh), from northern New York (Long Lake), and from Maine (Orono), while during fall or winter it has been recorded from southeastern South Dakota (Vermillion), Minnesota (Fosston, Hutchinson, Minneapolis, and Northfield), Connecticut (New Haven and Norwalk), and eastern Long Island (Easthampton).
Egg dates: Florida: 5 records, May 2 to 9.
Maryland: 5 records, April 26 to May 26.
Oklahoma: 6 records, April 16 to May 27.
South Carolina: 7 records, April 18 to 30. Texas: 9 records, March 26 to April 20.
PARUS ATRICRISTATUS ATRICRISTATUS Cassin
The above name was originally applied to the species as a whole, which is to be found over much of eastern Texas and eastern Mexico, but the species has been split into two subspecies, and the subject of this sketch is now restricted in its distribution to the southern portion of the range, from the Rio Grande River southward through eastern Mexico to Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, and northern Veracruz.
George B. Sennett (1878 and 1879) seems to have been the first to make us acquainted with the black-crested titmice of the Rio Grande Valley. He says in his first paper: “These lively and sweet singers were everywhere abundant, especially in old lagoon-beds, now largely grown up with the mesquite and lignum vitae.” We found these sprightly and attractive little birds to be common everywhere around Brownsville, in the heavy timber along the resacas, in the open groves of deciduous trees, and in the shade trees in the town. Their behavior and their delightful songs were strikingly like those of the familiar tufted titmouse.
Nesting: Mr. Sennett (1879) was also the first to find the nest of this bird. His first nest, found in 1877, contained young, but on April 20, 1878, his assistant brought him a nest containing five young and an addled egg, probably the first one ever collected. He says of this nest:
The nest was situated some six feet from the ground, in a hollow limb of a half-dead willow, which was leaning on some brush, and was discovered by the bird’s flying into its opening. It lay some ten or twelve inches from the opening, and is composed chiefly of wool intermixed with strips of soft inner bark, and now and then bits of snake-skins; the whole being much firmer and thicker than is usual with nests that are built in hollow stubs. All other nests found with young were situated higher, with one exception; the distance varying from four to twelve feet from the ground. I found them to occupy usually the abandoned holes of the ‘Texas Woodpecker, Picus scalaris; but split forks of trees were sometimes put in use. They prefer living trees to dead ones, and in every case in my experience the opening had to be enlarged, sometimes with difficulty, before examination of the nest could be made. The localities mostly selected for nesting are groves or open timber free from undergrowth, whether in old lagoon beds, which receive the overflow from the river, or on the driest knolls. They do not avoid human habitations, as two nests were found on the ranch in ebony-trees, near buildings much frequented. The parents guard their treasures well, and are much disturbed when the nest is invaded; though not until they see that their nest is actually being handled do they give any cry of alarm, or other intimation of uneasiness than their near presence.
Others have referred to this bird’s use of pieces of cast-off snakeskin in its nests, which seems to be a common practice with the species.
Eggs: The black-crested titmouse probably deposits a set of five or six eggs ordinarily, perhaps sometimes as many even as seven, or as few as four.
Of the single egg, referred to above, Mr. Sennett (1879) says: “The ground color is clear dead white; distributed unevenly over the whole surface, and not very sparingly, are flecks and blotches of fawn-color of various shades, the sides having rather more than either end.” A set of four fresh eggs he describes as follows: “The ground color is pinkish-white. The spots of reddish-brown are small and few in number, and scattered over the greater part of the egg, but at the larger end they are large and numerous, covering nearly the whole end, though in no case forming a ring”
The measurements of 50 eggs average 17.0 by 13.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 18.9 by 13.5, 16.2 by 14.4, 15.0 by 13.4, and 15.1 by 12.7 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation does not seem to be known. Mr. Sennett (1879) found that both sexes share the duties of incubation, for be took a male on the nest, and noticed that other males had bare and wrinkled bellies. Apparently two broods are reared in a season.
Plumages: According to Mr. Sennett (1879), the “young just from the egg are nude, with the exception of a few long, dark, downy feathers on the back, nape, and over the eyes.”
Ridgway (1904) describes the young in juvenal plumage as “essentially like adults, but black of crown and crest much duller (the feathers often narrowly tipped with grayish), lees sharply defined laterally and posteriorly against the gray, and anteriorly invading the forehead almost (sometimes quite) to base of culmen; throat and chest pale gray; color of sides and flanks much paler (cinnamon-buff instead of rufous-cinnamon); back sometimes suffused with sooty or blackish.”
What few molting birds I have seen indicate that the postnuptial molts of adults, and probably the postjuvenal molt, take place mainly in August; September birds seem to be in fresh plumage.
Food: Little seems to be known about the food of this titmouse, and practically nothing has been published on it. Austin Paul Smith (1910) writes: “Having but one true Titmouse, the Black-crested (Baeolophus atricristatus), we especially appreciate him, though he is omnipresent, even into the heart of the city [Brownsville]. They inspect any object of size, that may arouse suspicion of harboring caterpillars or other insects. They are very fond of the caterpillar of the butterfly (Libythea bachmanni) which so persistently attacks our hackberry trees, as to have surely defoliated them this summer, but for the combined efforts of the Titmouse and Sennett Oriole.”
Voice: Mr. Smith (1910) says further: “The Black-crested Tit is rarely silent, the usual notes being a continuation of sounds like ‘pete-chee-chee-chee’; more rarely ‘peter-peter.’ By April the young have appeared on the scene.”
Range: South-central Texas and northeastern Mexico; not migratory. The range of the black-crested titmouse extends north to central Texas (Chisos Mountains, San Angelo, and Lomita). East to central Texas (Lomita, Austin, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville) and Veracruz (“highlands”). South to Veracruz (“highlands”); and San Luis Potosi (Tamazunchale and Valles). West to San Luis Potosi (Valles); western Tamaulipas (Victoria and Montemorelos); western Nuevo León (Monterey and Lampazos); and southwestern Texas (Chisos Mountains).
The range outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into two subspecies, the typical black-crested titmouse (Parus atricristatus atricristatus), occupying the southern portion of the range, north to the Rio Grande Valley, while Sennett’s titmouse (P. a. sennetti), is found in Texas.
Egg dates: Texas: 68 records, March 7 to May 26; 34 records. April 3 to May 2, indicating the height of the season.
PARUS ATRICRISTATUS SENNETTI (Ridgway)
More than 50 years elapsed after the species was discovered before this northern race of the black-crested titmouse was named and described, as distinct subspecifically from the race found in the Rio Grande Valley and in eastern Mexico. Ridgway (1904) describes it as “similar to B. a. atricristatus, but decidedly larger; upper parts much clearer gray, with little, if any, olive tinge; adult female with crest feathers more often and more extensively tipped with gray, and both sexes with forehead more often tinged with brown or rusty, sometimes deeply so.” He goes on to say in a footnote that “any pronounced rusty tinge to the color of the forehead indicates, in the writer’s opinion, admixture of B. bicolor blood.” And he suggests that the two subspecies described by Sennett, from Bee County, Tex., are merely hybrids between the two species, bicolor and atricristatus.
John Cassin (1852), who first described the species and published the first colored plate of it, says that it was discovered in Texas by John Woodhouse Audubon, and it was described by Cassin in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, vol. 5, p. 103, 1850. The only information he had regarding its habits came from Dr. Samuel W. Woodhouse, from whose journal he quoted as follows:
While our party was encamped on the Rio Salado in Texas, near San Antonio, in March, 1851, I observed this handsome little chickadee for the first time. It was busily engaged in capturing insects among the trees on the bank of the stream, and like the other species of its family, was incessantly in motion and very noisy. At our camp at Quihi, on the eighth of May, I again found it very abundant among the oaks. The young males, which were then fully grown, much resembled the adult females, both wanting the black crest which characterizes the male. Afterwards I noticed this species, occurring sparingly, along our route, as far as the head waters of the San Francisco river in New Mexico. [The birds seen in New Mexico were probably the gray titmouse, P. inornatus ridgwayi.]
I observed it almost entirely in trees bordering streams of water. * * * It occurred in small parties, appeared to be very sociable and lively in its habits, and in general appearance and in nearly all its notes which I heard, it so very much resembled the common crested chickadee of the Northern States as scarcely to be recognized as a distinct species at a short distance.
The distribution now given for this subspecies in the 1931 Check-List is the “Lower Austral Zone of central Texas, from Tom Green and Concho counties east to the Brazos River, and from Young County south to Nueces and Bee counties.”
George Finlay Simmons (1925) lists as its haunts, in the Austin region, “woodlands along creeks; scrub oaks and cedars on hillsides; oak groves or mottes in open or semi-open country; city shade trees; ravines, gullies, and canyons among the hills; oak-clad crests of hills; telegraph poles along railroad rights-of-way.”
Mrs. Bailey (1902) says that “Mr. Bailey found the black-crest one of the most abundant birds of the Upper Sonoran zone, flying about conspicuously among the junipers, nut pines, and scrub oaks.”
Nesting: Like others of the genus, Sennett’s titmouse builds its nest in natural cavities in trees, stumps, or posts, in old woodpecker holes, or in bird boxes. Mr. Simmons (1925) says that the nest may be placed anywhere from 3 to 22 feet above ground, averaging about 10 feet; he says the commonest locations are “hollows in live oaks, next commonest in fence posts and bird boxes, then boxed fence posts, elms, hachberries, cedars, telephone poles and post oaks.” He found one nest on the top of an old mockingbird’s nest in a well-sheltered tree.
He says that the nest consists of “a mass of rubbish composed of cowhair, rabbit fur, green lichens, cedar bark, green moss, cotton, feathers, and oak blossoms; and occasionally small bits of inner bark and bark fiber, grass, wool, soft down, leaves, rootlets, a stick or two, hemp string, tissue paper, onion skins, and felting materials.” It is “lined with soft short cowhair, rabbit fur, opossum hair, wool, cotton, and occasionally horsehair, soft down, feathers, and snake skin.” The bottom of the cavity is filled with green moss to a depth of from 2 or 3 inches in one case to as much as 36 inches. He and others have reported that pieces of cast-off snakeskin are usually found in the nests; these and the tissue paper and onion skin may be used to give resiliency or ventilation to the nest; this is evidently a characteristic habit of the species, as it is with the crested flycatcher, under which it is more fully discussed.
Eggs: The eggs of Sennett’s titmouse vary in number from four to seven; of 25 sets, recorded by Mr. Simmons (1925), 5 were sets of seven, 12 of six, 5 of five, and 3 of four eggs each. The eggs are apparently indistinguishable from those of the other black-crested titmouse, under which they are more fully described. Albert J. Kim writes to me that he once found a nest containing twelve eggs; and once he found a nest with two eggs of the titmouse and two of the dwarf cowbird, which was afterwards deserted. The measurements of 40 eggs average 17.9 by 14.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.3 by 14.3, 18.0 by 15.0, 16.1 by 14.0, and 18.4 by 12.6 millimeters.
Food: Although no careful analysis of the food of this titmouse seems to have been made, it is probably similar to that of the closely related tufted titmouse, about two-thirds insects in various forms and about one-third vegetable matter. It seems to be very fond of caterpillars and searches the limbs and trunks of trees for hidden insects, their larvae and their eggs; scales and spiders are probably eaten to some extent, as well as berries, wild fruits, and some soft-shelled nuts and acorns. H. P. Attwater (1892) says that “the favorite food of the Black-crested Titmouse during winter is the pecan nut; they hold them on the horizontal limbs, or place them in the cracks of the bark, and break them open by knocking with their bills, like Woodpeckers.”
Behavior: The behavior of both races of the black-crested titmouse is so much like that of the more familiar tufted titmouse that one would hardly recognize the difference between the two species at a little distance. They are both friendly, confiding, cheery, busy, active, and noisy little birds that attract our attention and our interest. Their elevated crests give them a jaunty appearance that is very pleasing. During the breeding season they are usually seen in pairs; after the young are on the wing, rather early in the season, they may be seen traveling about in family parties, and in the winter in loose companies, when they are often seen about human habitations and in towns. Mr. Simmons (1925) says that they become attached to one locality; “one pair nested for six consecutive years in a hollow of an old persimmon tree.”
Illustrating the confiding nature of this bird, Henry Nehrling (1893) relates the following experience that came to him while he was watching a white-eyed vireo’s nest:
While I stood there in perfect silence, with my gaze steadfastly fixed on the pretty lichen decorated domicile, a Black-crested Titmouse came very close to me. It first perched on a small bush, then it flew to the ground, and finally, growing very bold, clung fast to my trousers. When I moved, it flew back to the bush, contemplating me curiously, but finally, convinced of my good will, it returned and clambered up and down my back, pecking me, and again vigorously thrusting its bill into my clothes. It was obviously looking for insects, especially wood-ticks which in such places creep over ones clothes in great numbers. Whenever I made a noticeable movement, it fled a little distance, but invariably returned. Finally when I went and seated myself on a prostrate tree, it followed me again. It became so bold, that it not only climbed up and down my back, but fearlessly crept over to my shoulders and arms, and even onto the hat. This Titmouse stayed near me as long as I remained in that part of the woods, and pursued me a short distance, screaming loudly Wait-wait.wait-wait, while I continued my way through the forest. Never before have I seen such boldness and confidence exhibited by a wild bird.
Voice: Mr. Simmons (1925) says that the song is “quite similar to that of the Eastern Tufted Titmouse.” consisting of “a cheery, abbreviated Peté, Peté, Peté, Peté; a series of monotonous whistles, hew, hew, hew, hew, hew, hew, hew, hew; a whistled tseee ep; a rasping, scolding eck-eck.”
Enemies: Mr. Simmons (1925) lists this bird as a local victim of the cowbird.
Field marks: The long crest, usually erect, will mark this species as one of the crested titmice. The jet-black crest of the male and the dark crest of the female, much darker than that of the other crested titmice, will mark the bird as a black-crested titmouse; the subspecies are hardly recognizable in the field. This species has a white forehead, often tinged with brownish in the northern subspecies, whereas the tufted titmouse has a black forehead. The females and young have more or less admixture of gray in the crown and crest.