What is a Titmouse?
Few American birds have the publicity problems of the titmouse. Even though they are numerous, if not downright gregarious throughout most of their range, despite the fact that the Tufted Titmouse is consistently one of the top ten most frequently reported species in the Great Backyard Bird Count, titmice lack the popularity of other common birds like cardinals, jays, doves, crows, or even their close cousins, chickadees. Why is this adorable, doll-eyed songbird so often ignored?
Tufted Titmouse by Mike Bergin
Perhaps it has to do with the name. A bird in the genus Baeolophus is neither a mouse nor…the other thing. The word titmouse descends from the Old English terms, tit (any small animal or object) and mase (small bird), essentially meaning one small, small bird. Though there is nothing inherently prurient about this critter’s cognomen, it’s within the realm of possibility that even the mere utterance of it inspires twittering and naughty feelings in some individuals, and is thus best avoided. It is worth pointing out that titmice belong to the family Paridae, an expansive international clan made up primarily of what we call “chickadees” in the states but are known as “tits” in the Old World. What do you expect of those decadent, debauched Europeans?
Perhaps titmice are overlooked because they aren’t as flashy as so many other everyday avians. Cardinals are scarlet, crows ebon, and Blue Jays exactly what you’d think they are. The tiny titmouse, on the other hand, possesses an understated, what some might call drab charm. Titmice are typically slate gray or gray-brown above with lighter underparts. Some have black markings, some are plain, and a bit of rusty orange along the flanks is about as flamboyant as they get. That erectile crest is elegant enough, but clearly not enough to put the bird on the map.
Still, I would guess that the titmouse enjoys more relative anonymity than other equally abundant birds because it is a birder’s bird. By this, I mean that it lacks the outsize effrontery of corvids, pigeons, and starlings. It doesn’t inspire the admiration that raptors and other big birds do. And with a name like that, it’s a safe bet that no sports teams will be named for it. Titmice really are everywhere throughout North America and many points north and south, but a person has to be looking to notice them.
Birders, because they look, notice them everywhere. Titmice are as firm a fixture at backyard feeders as the GBBC census suggests. These hardy little songbirds reside in their areas year-round and thus appear prominently in every birding season. Not only are they sociable with other birds, particularly chickadees and nuthatches, but they hardly mind the presence of people. No wonder titmice are successful across so many habitats. So be on the lookout. If you pay even the slightest attention anytime you’re in proximity to forest or feeder, you’re bound to hear the buzzy call or “peter, peter” song of a titmouse or spy its acrobatic antics. Just don’t make fun of its name.
Here are some fun titmouse facts:
- Don’t believe in global warming? The Tufted Titmouse (B. bicolor), like the Red-bellied Woodpecker and Turkey Vulture, has expanded its range dramatically to penetrate northern reaches. A half-century ago, this species might have been restricted to Iowa or New Jersey, but now it can be found throughout New England and even south-eastern Canada.
- The Black-crested or Mexican Titmouse (B. atricristatus) was once considered a subspecies of the Tufted Titmouse. This native of Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico is now recognized as a separate species, but the two species will hybridize when they meet.
- Another instance of titmouse taxonomical tampering is the spinning of the Oak Titmouse (B. inornatus) and the Juniper Titmouse (B. ridgwayi) out of what was once the Plain Titmouse. The Oak Titmouse resides on the Pacific Slope from southern Oregon to the Baja, while the Juniper is a bird of the Great Basin and desert riparian woods as far south as Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. And yes, these birds are named for the vegetation that they favor.
- The Bridled Titmouse (B.wollweberi) looks like the missing link between titmice and chickadees, bearing the gray back and crest of the former and the black chin of the latter. This bird ranges from southeastern Arizona down through interior Mexico.
Oak Titmouse by Larry Jordan
(See Larry’s discussion and videos of Oak Titmouse and their fledglings)
(This post was first published in September 2006 but has been republished because titmice are always in vogue!)