Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are the only New World representative of the long-tailed tits (Aegithalidae) and they are primarily limited to the western parts of North America and the highlands of Central America. You can tell from the look of the male in flight above that they are not strong fliers. Lucky for them, they don’t have to be because they don’t migrate.

They are described in most texts as “a very small, drab-gray bird with a long tail” but I think they are under appreciated. The male and female of the species look very similar but they are easy to tell apart. The female has these captivating yellow eyes. Click on photos for full sized images.

Bushtit Female

One of their most endearing properties is that they travel in flocks of up to 50 birds, moving rapidly through the trees, hopping from branch to branch, hanging upside down, devouring small insects and spiders as they buzz with activity. If you have good ears you can hear them as they call to each other.

Probably one of the most interesting things about these little birds is that they are cooperative breeders. That is to say they have what are known as supernumeraries, individuals above and beyond the primary breeding pair that help with nest building and feeding young1.

Their nest is a 6 to 12 inch elongated pendulous structure with an entrance to one side of the top. This one was being built in a manzanita bush at Mary Lake. This is the back side of the nest. I had to go around to the opposite side to see the entrance and watch the Bushtits as they carried material into the nest and shaped it from within.

Bushtit Nest

The nest is built of spider webs and plant material. It is camouflaged with local plant material, usually of the tree species the nest is built within. This is the dark-eyed male exiting the nest…

Bushtit Male

and a closer look.

Bushtit Male

The male and female were both bringing in nesting material.

Bushtit Female

See what I mean about those captivating eyes?

Bushtit Female

These elaborate structures can take from two weeks to over a month to finish, depending on the weather. Each time they added to the nest, they would form it from the inside and the whole thing would shake like a bowl of jello. I shot this short video where one male is immediately followed by another individual male once the first one exits. The female had just finished her part of the shaping when I began filming, but you can see the male near the entrance as he works on filling in gaps in the wall.

I will try to keep an eye on this nest which is right next to a paved walking trail around the lake and try to get more photos of the nesting activity as the season progresses, without disturbing the birds of course.

References: 1Birds of North America Online

Written by Larry
Larry Jordan was introduced to birding after moving to northern California where he was overwhelmed by the local wildlife, forcing him to buy his first field guide just to be able to identify all the species visiting his yard. Building birdhouses and putting up feeders brought the avian fauna even closer and he was hooked. Larry wanted to share his passion for birds and conservation and hatched The Birder's Report in September of 2007. His recent focus is on bringing the Western Burrowing Owl back to life in California where he also monitors several bluebird trails. He is a BirdLife Species Champion and contributes to several other conservation efforts, being the webmaster for Wintu Audubon Society and the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Urban Bird Foundation. He is now co-founder of a movement to create a new revenue stream for our National Wildlife Refuges with a Wildlife Conservation Pass.