Feb 15, 2016 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2016

The Titmouse Family Tree

Five species of titmice reside in North America, and they're all adorable! This is the tufted titmouse.

Pity those who live in the Northwest and east to western Minnesota: They don't have titmice at their bird feeders. Five species of titmice occur from coast to coast in North America, but not everywhere. The "mouse" portion of the titmouse name probably comes from its black, button-like eyes, which stand out against a plain face—in four out of five titmouse species. From deep mixed woods to old orchards, from city parks to leafy suburban backyards, this friendly and active little bird makes itself at home year-round. That is, titmice don't migrate.

Like their close cousins the chickadees, titmice are noisy and sociable, quite tame around humans, and fearless among other small birds with which they frequently associate. Along with chickadees, titmice are the The female California quail is browner than the male and her topknot is smaller. watchdogs of the woodlot and backyard, alerting other birds to danger. When they sound especially agitated it's a good bet that they've located a predator, such as an owl, hawk, snake, cat, or fox.

All five titmouse species are mostly gray and have a crest. They also have short tails and short, strong bills. Their feet and legs are strong, too, allowing them to hang upside down while foraging, something few other birds do. Another habit common to titmice and chickadees is to pound a seed while they hold it in their feet. Jays are the only other birds that do this.

The natural nesting choice of all titmice is a tree cavity, such as an abandoned woodpecker hole or a crack caused by a lightening strike—a good reason to leave dead trees or tree limbs in place where and when you can safely do so. Other sites include rotted fence posts and human-provided nest boxes, especially those with an entrance hole about 1½ inches in diameter. Titmice are most likely to use boxes placed along woodland edges or inside the woods.

The tufted titmouse is the most widespread of the five titmice species in North America.

Tufted Titmouse

The tufted titmouse is the most widespread, ranging from central Texas to eastern Minnesota to New England to southern Florida. Originally considered a southern woodland bird, for the past 50 years it has been expanding its range northward and westward. The species' affinity for bird feeders and nesting boxes played a part, as has the regeneration of the eastern deciduous forest. Tufted titmice are able to survive harsh weather as long as sufficient food is available.

Its cheerful calls of peter peter peter ring out even in midwinter. In addition to their signature calls, they have a variety of whistled notes similar to the northern cardinal and Carolina wren. Tufted titmice are easy to locate by their noisy, scolding calls, which are harsh and raspy, similar to that of a chickadee. In winter tufted titmice travel in mixed flocks with chickadees, sparrows, woodpeckers, and kinglets.

The tufted titmouse is 6¼ inches long and dressed primly across its upperparts in gray, with a creamy breast and rusty flanks. Its bill, legs, and feet are black. It eats mostly insects and seeds, depending on time of year. Caterpillars are popular in summer, but titmice also take wasps and bees, scale insects, beetles, the larvae of many species, and, in winter, insect eggs. Acorns are a mainstay in fall and winter. At feeders, titmice relish sunflower seeds, suet, suet dough, and peanuts. They often snag a single seed and fly away to crack it open to consume the nutmeat inside.

The female builds the nest of grass, moss, bark and leaves, filling up whatever spot the pair has adopted. When the main structure is completed, the birds line it with hair, often plucked from a living animal—woodchuck, rabbit, dog, or even human! Five or six eggs are laid, incubated by the female for 12 to 14 days. Both parents feed the young, which fledge at about 15 days. The family group stays together sometimes into the next year, and year-old birds may help their parents care for the nestlings of the newest brood.

The oak titmouse, found in California, is slightly browner than the juniper titmouse, but the two species are nearly identical, and once were thought to be one species, called the plain titmouse.

Oak and Juniper Titmouse

These two species are nearly identical, and were once considered a single species: the plain titmouse. Over time, field studies revealed their natural differences and they were split into two species, each one named for the kind of trees with which it is closely associated. The name "plain titmouse" was also appropriate because these two birds lack any notable field marks beyond their crested heads and mousy black eyes. Both species are lively, active birds, moving about their year-round habitats in small family groups sweetly calling to and scolding one another as they forage for insects, nuts, and seeds.

The oak titmouse is found only in the oak and pine forests of California and southwestern Oregon, while the juniper can be found farther east in oak-juniper and pinyon-juniper forests throughout the desert Southwest. The oak titmouse is more likely to be found in suburban parks and small-town backyards. Both of these titmice are small, measuring just 5¾ inches in length. Plain gray overall, both of these species are a darker shade of gray above and paler below. The oak titmouse is slightly browner overall than the juniper titmouse, but because these species overlap only in a tiny part of their range, it is unlikely that you will be treated to a side-by-side comparison.

Noisy flocks of either titmouse are usually heard before they are seen. They forage along branches, often hanging upside-down to reach hard-to-get food items. The oak titmouse's call is a scratchy swissy cheese! Its song is a whistly sweetie-sweetie-sweetie. The juniper titmouse's call is see-deedeedee!

If your backyard or neighborhood has oaks or junipers and falls within the range of one of these tiny woodland sprites, chances are a small foraging flock will visit sooner or later. Both species are eager visitors at feeding stations, where they will eat sunflower hearts, peanuts, suet, and suet dough as well as grapes and nuts. Both species are avid visitors to backyard water features.

Nesting habits are similar for the oak and juniper titmice. When a suitable cavity is found, the male and female work together to create the nest out of soft materials including grass, plant down, moss, and bark shreds, then lined with animal hair. Up to eight eggs are laid and incubated by the female for two weeks. Young titmice fledge from the nest between two and three weeks later after being fed in the nest by both parents.

The black-crested titmouse is found throughout Texas and into Oklahoma and Mexico.

Black-crested Titmouse

The black-crested titmouse is smaller than the tufted titmouse, yet larger than the oak and juniper titmice. Black-crested titmice share almost identical plumage with the tufted titmouse including light-gray underparts, a gray back, and wings, and the signature rusty flanks. They differ when it comes to facial markings, however: Black-cresteds have a bright white forehead that contrasts heavily with an extra long, black crest. The range of the black-crested titmouse covers nearly all of Texas and extends a bit into southern Oklahoma and south into Mexico. In the narrow band of central Texas where their ranges overlap, the black-crested and tufted titmice interbreed.

The black-crested's song is a rapid pew pew pew. They can be found foraging low among mesquite branches for acorns and other nuts, seeds, berries, and larvae, and will visit backyard bird stations that offer sunflower seeds and suet.

You'll have to visit southeastern Arizona or southwestern New Mexico to see a bridled titmouse.

Bridled Titmouse

The bridled titmice got its name from its complex facial markings, strikingly different from other titmice. Its cheeks are white, while the crest, chin, back of the head, and arrow-shaped facial markings are black. It is the smallest of the titmouse family at 5¼ inches in length, and its body shape more closely resembles a chickadee.

The bridled titmouse is the southernmost member of the titmouse family. More common in Mexico, the northern tip of its range extends into southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Bridled titmice forage for the same foods as other titmice, but move through branches and foliage at a faster pace. Bridled titmice also search for natural cavities within dead trees and branches; they will also make nest boxes their home.

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The Latest Comments

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  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
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