Friday, January 20, 2006
Biodiversity Corner:Tufted Titmouse
A few days before Christmas, I heard a "thump" on the window of our sunroom. I looked out the window and saw a Tufted Titmouse lying on the ground on its back. I was afraid it might have broken its neck, but when I touched it, it rolled over on its feet. I stroked it gently on the head and back and took a few photographs. After about 15 minutes it recovered and flew to a nearby tree, and after another 15 minutes it flew away.
If you have birdfeeders with sunflower seeds, you have probably seen a Tufted Titmouse. Titmice eat mostly seeds and insects, but in the winter when insects are scarce they visit birdfeeders for sunflower seeds (mostly) and suet. They usually form winter-feeding flocks with Chickadees and Nuthatches. The name "titmouse" derives from Old Icelandic "titr," meaning "something small" and Old English "mase" meaning "small bird." The genus name Parus is Latin for "titmouse", and bicolor is Latin for "two-colored"(1).
Tufted Titmouse was a rare bird in Massachusetts until the late 1950s. The northern limit of its range had previously been northern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The first report of Titmice nesting in Massachusetts was in 1958, followed by a major influx in the fall of 1961 (2). The first Concord Christmas Bird Count (CBC) record of Titmice was six in 1962 (3); the count began in 1960. Since then, the Titmouse has established itself as a breeding bird over most of the state except for the offshore islands, and large numbers, mostly at feeding stations, are reported during Christmas Bird Counts. The graph below, courtesy of Ken Harte, shows the numbers of Tufted Titmice recorded in the Carlisle sector of the Concord CBC since 1973.
Besides Tufted Titmouse, several other birds now breeding in Massachusetts have "migrated" north in recent years, including Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Carolina Wren. Range expansion may be due to milder winter temperatures, but certainly some species, such as the Cardinal and Titmouse, have greatly benefited from birdfeeders. Titmice nest in natural cavities, and occasionally use nest boxes. One year, a Titmouse raised a brood in a nest box in our yard. The box was about eight feet above ground and in the middle of a small lawn surrounded by trees.
A curious habit of the female Titmouse is her preference for using animal hair to line the nest. Several years ago my wife D'Ann's birding class was at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Newburyport. One of our group spotted a fisher resting near the top of a hemlock. As we watched the fisher, we saw a Titmouse approach the fisher on several occasions and pluck its hair! The fisher appeared to tolerate this surprisingly well and did not move away.
Titmice also use human hair, as noted by Bent (4): "E. Irwin Smith (1924) 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.'"
The writer thanks Ken Harte for providing CBC data.
1. E. S. Gruson, Words for Birds, Quadrangle Books, 1972, p. 195.
2. R. R. Veit and W. R. Petersen, Birds of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Audubon Society, 1993, pp. 330-31.
3. National Audubon Society (CBC data): www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/hr/index.html
4. A.C. Bent, Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds; http://home.bluemarble.net/~pqn/ch21-30/titmouse.html.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito