Tag Archives: National Audubon Society

Tufted titmouse small songbird with big personality

In last week’s post I wrote about chickadees. These friendly little birds have an impish cousin that is also a frequent visitor to feeders in the region. If chickadees are active woodland sprites, their relative, the titmouse, is a curious imp with mischievous tendencies.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse puffs up its feathers on a cold day.

The tufted titmouse’s song — a persistent repetition of “Peter! Peter! Peter!” — is ringing through the woodlands around my home along with the urgent “fee-be fee-bo” of the Carolina chickadee. These birds form mixed flocks with each other and other species to explore their surroundings and search for food. They know that spring, despite the usual false starts, is drawing nearer with each passing day.

In addition to singing, titmice are enthusiastic scolders. They will scold over any transgression, real or imagined, focusing their ire on their fellow titmice or other birds, potential predators and even human observers. They’re quite persistent at their raucous scolding, which is just another reason I label them as imps of the woods.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young titmouse visits a suet feeder.

The tufted titmouse is a mostly gray bird with a distinctive crest and a pinkish-rusty coloration along the flanks. Titmouse eyes are black as coal and look large in proportion to their heads, which lends them an expressive appearance as they explore in yards and gardens. The term “titmouse” refers to the old English word “tit” meaning “small,” as well as the old English “mase,” also a reference to small size. Eventually, probably because of the bird’s small size and gray coloration, “mase” evolved into “mouse” and combined to form the word “titmouse.”

The titmice living in my yard visit my house windows at times, which drives my cats to distraction. I’ve wondered if the titmice are curious and trying to peek inside the house, but I believe I have a more down-to-earth explanation. These little birds are very thorough when foraging for food, and I’ve watched them pluck spiders and other insects from the window frames.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse approaches a stream for a quick drink.

Like chickadees, titmice are fond of sunflower seeds. No other offering will so readily lure them to feeders, although they do develop a fondness for suet cakes. I’ve also had great success attracting titmice to my feeders by offering unsalted, shelled peanuts. I sometimes break up the peanuts into smaller, more manageable pieces for the benefit of the titmice. These foods and a few trees or saplings around your home is all you really need to welcome titmice.

In the early 1900s, the tufted titmouse would have been considered a southern bird with its stronghold in states like Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Perhaps it is the titmouse’s innate curiosity that has pushed the species to expand successfully beyond the southern United States. The titmouse has steadily expanded its range northward, thriving in new locations. Experts credit this expansion to more readily available access to supplemental food at feeders.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse turns an eye on the camera.

During the nesting season, titmice forage for a variety of insects. Many spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other small bugs will be fed to hungry young titmice in a tree cavity or a nesting box. Like chickadees, titmice build exquisite nests, often using mostly moss with other materials, such as bark, cloth scraps, dry leaves and shed snakeskins. These small birds line their nests with hair or fur of other animals.

Over the years, many readers have shared observations documenting the fur-collecting skills of tufted titmice. The birds are not content to simply collect shed fur. They seem to prefer collecting the fur fresh from a living animal. Many dogs fall victim to impish titmice that boldly pluck strands of fur from the canine’s coat.

In another funny story, a woman once told me about a titmouse that flew onto her head every time she stepped outside her home. Perhaps the bird sensed her affection for birds since it never failed to pluck strands of hair from her head to carry back to its nest. For any would-be skeptics, the woman provided photographic documentation of the incidents. In addition to dogs and humans, animals ranging from squirrels and opossums to mice and woodchucks have also been observed “sacrificing” fur for the nesting success of tufted titmice.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • The tufted titmouse is a backyard bird with an impish personality.

The female tufted titmouse incubates the eggs. She lays between three and nine eggs, although a usual clutch size is five to six eggs. The female titmouse is protective of her nest and is known for a behavior known as a “snake display.” I’ve observed titmice perform this display when I’ve peeked into nesting boxes. She remains tightly seated on her eggs, or young, while she hisses loudly and strikes in a manner very much like a striking serpent. Not all titmice engage in this display. Some remain still and try to “blend” with the nest, while others will fly away if a nest box is opened. Regardless, it’s a convincing display of bravado on the part of such a small bird. If it looks scary to people, I am sure it could succeed at repelling a squirrel or mouse. I’m uncertain if the behavior would deter an actual snake.

Other titmice in North America include bridled titmouse in Arizona and New Mexico; oak titmouse of the Pacific Coast region; juniper titmouse from the Great Basin, which consists of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California; and the black-crested titmouse, which ranges from Missouri into east-central Mexico.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse pounds at a peanut held in its feet.

Titmice occur exclusively in North America and belong to the genus Baeolophus. Europe, Asia and Africa are home to some other crested birds in the family of chickadees and titmice. For instance, the European crested tit and the grey crested tit are species that sport a crest of feathers like titmice but are more closely related to chickadees.

Yes, the tufted titmouse is one of nature’s imps, but it’s also one of our more entertaining birds. Get to know these visitors by offering sunflower seeds or other fare and, if you want to go the extra step, place some bird boxes around your yard as potential nesting sites. By next winter, you may have an entire flock of these feathered imps as your guests.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse makes a quick visit to a suet feeder.

Annual Christmas Bird Counts offer some surprises

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held its 72nd consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count on Sunday,  Dec. 14. A total of 25 observers in six parties tallied 69 species. Inn addition, counters observed another three species during Count Week.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Downy Woodpecker, such as this female, were found on both the Elizabethton and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Counts.

According to long-time count compiler Rick Knight, this year’s total was slightly below the recent 30-year average of 72 species. The all-time high for the Elizabethton CBC took place in 2012 when a total of 80 species was recorded.

Highlights from this year’s Elizabethton CBC included a Greater White-fronted Goose, American Woodcock and Palm Warbler. Other notable finds include five Purple Finches and 18 Pine Siskins. Notable absences included Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Meadowlark.

Photo by Bryan Stevens

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     A Greater White-fronted Goose and Canada Goose forage in a field during the Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.


The 62nd Roan Mountain CBC took place Monday, Dec. 15. A total of eight observers in two parties found 53 species. This was above the recent 30-year average of 45 species and the most since 1995 when 54 species was recorded for this count.

According to Knight, an immature Northern Goshawk proved the highlight of this year’s Roan Mountain CBC. Other notable finds included Red-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch and Pine Siskin.

Knight also noted that Common Ravens were found on both counts. A total of 11 Common Ravens was found on the Elizabethton CBC with 24 Common Ravens found during the Roan Mountain CBC.


The 2,050 European Starlings reported on the Elizabethton CBC represented the most common species on this survey. Other common birds on the Elizabethton CBC included American Crow (725), Canada Goose (526) and Rock Pigeon (467).


Photo by Bryan Stevens                            Wilson’s Snipes were found along the Watauga River during the Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

The American Crow, with 146 individuals found, ranked as the most abundant species on the Roan Mountain CBC. Only 47 European Starlings were tallied for this count. Other common birds for the Roan Mountain CBC included Song Sparrow (80), Mourning Dove (46) and Carolina Chickadee (42).


The results for the Elizabethton CBC follows:

Greater White-fronted Goose, 1; Canada Goose, 526; Mallard, 302; Ring-necked Duck, 2; Bufflehead, 251; and Hooded Merganser, 12.

Wild Turkey, 106; Common Loon, 2; Pied-billed Grebe, 10; Horned Grebe, 8; and Great Blue Heron, 23.

Black Vulture, 6; Turkey Vulture, 6; Bald Eagle, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 4; Cooper’s Hawk, 9; Red-tailed Hawk, 23; and American Kestrel, 12.

American Coot, 3; Killdeer, 3; Wilson’s Snipe, 7; American Woodcock, 1; and Ring-billed Gull, 36.

Rock Pigeon, 467; Mourning Dove, 282; Eastern Screech-Owl, 14; Great Horned Owl, 4; and Barred Owl, 1.

Belted Kingfisher, 17; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 46; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 10; Downy Woodpecker, 34; Hairy Woodpecker, 5; Northern Flicker, 42; and Pileated Woodpecker, 28.

Eastern Phoebe, 9; Blue Jay, 237; American Crow, 725; Common Raven, 11; Carolina Chickadee, 137; Tufted Titmouse, 74; White-breasted Nuthatch, 29; and Brown Creeper, 1.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        Hermit Thrushes were found during both the Elizabethton and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Counts.

Carolina Wren, 121; Winter Wren, 8; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 17;  Eastern Bluebird, 140; Hermit Thrush, 9; and American Robin, 28.

Northern Mockingbird, 84; European Starling, 2,050; Cedar Waxwing, 27; Palm Warbler, 1; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 73.

Eastern Towhee, 22; Chipping Sparrow, 12; Field Sparrow, 16; Fox Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 168; Swamp Sparrow, 1; White-throated Sparrow, 115; White-crowned Sparrow, 23; and Dark-eyed Junco, 129.

Northern Cardinal, 231; Purple Finch, 5; House Finch, 33; Pine Siskin, 18; American Goldfinch, 107; and House Sparrow, 96.


The results for the Roan Mountain CBC follows:

Mallard, 3; Bufflehead, 12; Hooded Merganser, 4; Wild Turkey, 7; Pied-billed Grebe, 2; and Great Blue Heron, 3.

Northern Goshawk, 1; Turkey Vulture, 4; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-shouldered Hawk, 1; Red-tailed Hawk, 7; and American Kestrel, 1.

Rock Pigeon, 3; Mourning Dove, 46; Eastern Screech-Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 3; and Belted Kingfisher, 2.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 3; Downy Woodpecker, 13; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 5; and Pileated Woodpecker, 7.

Eastern Phoebe, 2; Blue Jay, 22; American Crow, 146; and Common Raven, 24.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                        Bufflehead was one of the few ducks found on both the Elizabethton and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Counts.

Carolina Chickadee, 42; Tufted Titmouse, 29; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 15; and Brown Creeper, 1.

Carolina Wren, 25; Winter Wren, 3; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 10; Eastern Bluebird, 16; Hermit Thrush, 1; and Northern Mockingbird, 6.

European Starling, 47; Eastern Towhee, 2; Field Sparrow, 15; Fox Sparrow, 3; Song Sparrow, 80; White-throated Sparrow, 8; White-crowned Sparrow, 5; and Dark-eyed Junco, 24.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                         Common Coots were found at only one location on this year’s Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

Northern Cardinal, 16; Purple Finch, 2; House Finch, 4; Pine Siskin, 4; American Goldfinch 30; and House Sparrow, 31.


According to the website of the National Audubon Society, the annual Christmas Bird Count evolved from another holiday tradition. In the 1800s, people engaged in a holiday custom known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” This event saw participants choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.

Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition — a “Christmas Bird Census” — that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

Frank Chapman organized the very first Christmas Bird Count back in

Frank Chapman organized the very first Christmas Bird Count back in 1900.

Thanks to Chapman’s inspiration and the enthusiasm of 27 dedicated birders, 25 Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied 89 species on all the counts combined. Some of the birds found included such common birds as Northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, turkey vulture and killdeer. It also included some somewhat unusual species such as Townsend’s warbler, pine grosbeak, Anna’s hummingbird, greater prairie-chicken and white-headed woodpecker.