For the Birds Radio Program: Tufted Titmouse
When Russ and I were fresh out of college in Lansing Michigan and making decisions about where to settle down, my only request was to live in a place where I could see Black-capped Chickadees and Blue Jays in my day-to-day life, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the summer. First we headed to Madison, Wisconsin, where Russ got his Ph.D., and then onto Duluth, and my affection for those three species has never dimmed. Now that I’m going to be spending most of my time in Ithaca, New York, I’ll continue to see these wonderful species, but I’m going to be enjoying another one, too—one I grew extremely fond of when we lived in Lansing, Michigan. The Tufted Titmouse is a spunky little relative of the chickadee with a perky little crest like a Blue Jay—what could be cooler? Titmice have a delightful song that some people transcribe as “Peter Peter Peter” and an animated little chatter similar to a chickadee’s dee-dee-deeing.
If I’d lived in upstate New York back when I started birding in 1975, Tufted Titmice might have been a hotline bird. Their range has extended northward in recent decades, not simply because of climate change but also due to the maturation of hardwood forests on abandoned farmlands and to an increase in winter bird feeding. I’ve visited Ithaca twice—in 2004 and then this past November, and both times got to enjoy several titmice at the Cornell Lab’s feeders and in Sapsucker Woods. I don’t really expect to see them regularly in Duluth during my lifetime—the forest type I most associate with Titmice is mature beech-maple, so even if Blue Jays started seriously planting beech forests up here in 2008, I’d not be likely to see the trees reach maturity.
So instead I’ll get to enjoy them in Ithaca. Like chickadees, they nest in abandoned woodpecker holes, or sometimes in bird boxes, so I expect I’ll be setting up some bird houses early this spring, in hopes of a pair of titmice or chickadees. They’ll be fun to watch. Unlike chickadees, Tufted Titmice never excavate their own cavities, and also unlike chickadees, they often spend the spring as a trio, a pair and one of their young ones from the previous year. I’d love to observe that!
Titmice are fairly long-lived for such tiny, vulnerable birds. In one study of winter survival of marked individuals in two different woodlots in Ohio, there was zero mortality of any individual Tufted Titmice from early December through late February. Part of their success that year may have been due to the exceptionally large crop of beech mast, since that is a favorite and very nutritional food for them, but they’re still exceptionally hardy—the oldest banded one on record lived to be 13 years 3 months.
When I spent January, 2006, in Arkansas, I spent a lot of time with titmice, and my fondness for this friendly, inquisitive, spunky bird was sparked all over again. When I set out my feeders in Ithaca I’ll be eagerly watching for them.