Nesting Behaviors of the Tufted Titmouse in USA

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Tufted Titmouse Perching
Image by Mike Nolan via Flickr.

The Tufted Titmouse. Is it a tit (the bird, just to be clear)? Is it a mouse? 

Well, neither. 

It is a small passerine bird, related to the chickadee family. 

A regular to backyard feeders of Eastern USA, the tufted titmouse can be seen flitting around the outer branches of deciduous woodlands. 

Like the Eastern bluebird, the tufted titmouse is a cavity nester. They nest in both artificial and natural structures. 

This article will aim to explore the nesting behaviors of the tufted titmouse.

What Are Tufted Titmice?

The tufted titmouse is a species of passerine bird found across much of the Eastern woodlands of the USA. 

Although small, roughly 6 inches long, it looks comparatively larger than other passerine species that frequent bird feeders – even though it’s not. This is often attributed to their large heads and full-bodied appearance. 

Their size, coupled with a few distinct facial markings, are characteristics that separate them from similar species, such as the chickadee. 

Tufted titmice have large, dark eyes, along with a pronounced gray crest. From above, they have a uniform gray coloration. From below, their feathers are mostly white with streaks of pale orange. 

Above their short, stubby bill, and between their eyes, a distinct patch of black feathers can be found. 

There may be ID confusion when comparing the tufted titmouse to another titmouse species – the black-crested titmouse. As the name suggests, the black-crested titmouse has a fully black crest. 

Close Up of Tufted Titmouse
Image by Jay Gao via Flickr.

Geographical Distribution of the Tufted Titmouse

The tufted titmouse can be found in the Eastern United States, from Texas to Maine, typically in forests, both evergreen and deciduous, below 2,000 feet. 

In this relatively large geographical range, tufted titmice remain year-round. Unlike other passerine species, they are non-migratory and typically stay in the same region as they breed. 

With a warming climate, it has been observed that the range of the tufted titmouse was gradually expanded Northwards. 

During the early 20th Century, the tufted titmouse could be observed in the state of New Jersey. This, at the time, is the most northely record of the small passerine. 

Today, however, records from the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, have discovered tufted titmice as far North as Quebec and Ontario in Canada.

Where Do Tufted Titmice Nest?

Like bluebirds, the tufted titmouse is a secondary cavity-nesting bird.

And for those that need a quick memory jog, secondary cavity-nesting is essentially a fancy way of saying these birds live in pre-existing holes made by other species. 

Tufted Titmice Nesting in a Tree Cavity
Image by via Fernando B. Corrada via Flickr.

In the winter months throughout the Eastern USA, the average outside temperature is little over freezing. 

So, where better than to escape the frigid temperatures? Somewhere sheltered. A cavity, for example. 

Ah, it’s all making sense now. 

However, there is one flaw to this master plan. 

Like most passerine bird species, tufted titmice have those characteristic three toes forward, one toe backward. Great for perching. Not so great for excavating their own holes. 

So, to get around this, they enlist the help of larger species, such as the Pileated Woodpecker or Northern Flicker, that have already made holes for themselves. 

But, when pre-made natural holes aren’t available, the tufted titmouse, much like the bluebird, will happily seek refuge in artificial structures, such as nest boxes, fence posts and even gutters. Talk about being resourceful. 

The nest of a tufted titmouse has been recorded as high as 90 feet into the tree canopy. 

Nest Building in Tufted Titmice

So, a female has found a suitable nesting cavity. 

Now what?

Time for decorating. 

Within the cavity, be it natural or artificial, the female tufted titmouse will build up a cup-shaped nest using a variety of substrate

Typically, most females will opt for materials such as moss, grass and twigs to build the foundations of their nest. Then, depending on the individual and availability of resources, insulation is added. This can be in the form of bark shreddings or, rather bravely, hair plucked from a living animal.

Once a female is suitably satisfied with her creation, copulation can begin. 

Tufted Titmouse With Nesting Material
Image by Kitty Kono via Flickr.

Copulation in the Tufted Titmouse

Copulation in tufted titmice is rarely observed so research in this field is few and far between. 

Like many bird species, copulative behavior is restricted to a relatively narrow period during the early part of the breeding season. This is typically during very late March and April. 

Over the duration of the nest building, the male tufted titmouse will remain close by. He will regularly flutter his wings, not only to advertise his mating needs, but also to ward off any rival males. 

Only when nest construction is complete will the female titmouse emerge from the cavity. With the male waiting on a nearby branch, the female flies directly towards him. 

Studies in the field, carried out by Matthew Halley, observed the male flitting between nearby branches, with the female following his every move.

After a while, the female also began to vibrate her wings. This is known as the “flutter display”. The male, if interested, returned the wing vibration and copulation would commence soon after. In addition to the rapid wing vibration, the female may produce a series of high-frequency notes.

Tufted Titmouse Nesting Behaviors

A Tufted Titmouse in a Artificial Nest Box
Image by Mike Smith via Flickr.

In a recent study, it was observed that the tufted titmouse exhibited interspecific nest usurpation

Again, what’s with the names, scientists?

In short, interspecific nest usurpation is whereby one bird species takes over the nesting site of another bird species. 

Although this behavior is relatively common within secondary-cavity nesting birds, it has never been recorded in the tufted titmouse. 

Until now. 

Perhaps due to increased competition in response to habitat loss, the tufted titmouse observed in the study evicted a bluejay from a cavity. However, instead of letting the eggs of the bluejay perish, the tufted titmouse incubated these eggs until they hatched. 

The rearing of non-conspecific nestlings is an odd behavior, so why did the tufted titmouse do it? 

Well, scientists don’t really know. 

To rear another species is deleterious to the survival of one’s own health, as significant costs are incurred. 

So, one of the most likely explanations is that the tufted titmouse simply doesn’t realize it’s doing so. When the nesting desire is so high, the brooding female gets into a nesting “zone” and will incubate her own eggs, as well as the eggs in the recently usurped nest. 

How Humans Can Help

Like the Eastern bluebird, which has thrived from the help of human intervention, the tufted titmouse has also prospered in recent years. This is especially the case in suburban parks and recreational grounds, where the installation of bird boxes has guaranteed a safe place to nest, away from the prying clutches of predators. 

Of course, as with much of our wildlife today, threats do still occur. For the tufted titmouse, and many other small garden feeders, the presence of domesticated cats is having an impact on populations. Cats are skilled hunters, with an estimated 38% of the hunts ending in kills

One of the simplest solutions to prevent wildlife being killed by domesticated cats is to attach a bell to the collar of your cat. As the cat approaches its prey, the motion will cause the bell to emit noise, warning any species in the vicinity of the potential predator. 

Another problem facing many passerine bird species, including tufted titmice, is glass; mostly in the form of windows and doors. 

According to a 2014 study, over 1 billion birds perish from flying into windows each year. And the tufted titmouse is no exception. 

It makes sense though. I mean, windows reflect surrounding foliage and sky, thus luring the flying birds into a false sense of security. Then, out of nowhere, bam! 

If you’re prone to pesky mosquitoes in your area, perhaps invest in some mosquito netting on the outside of the windows. Not only will this screen protect you from irritating bites, they also reduce glare and reflection, discouraging birds from flying into windows. 

The above remedies are ways humans can save birds themselves.

But how can we increase the breeding population of tufted titmice?

Like the bluejay, the tufted titmouse is an adaptable nester, and can successfully rear a brood in an artificial nest box. 

Before the breeding season, and ensuring that you have an entrance hole of just over an inch in diameter, you can install a nesting box up to 15 feet high on a pole or tree, preferably in areas with deciduous trees. 

Final Thoughts

Tufted Titmouse in a Tree Cavity
Image by via Louis Ruttkay via Flickr.

The nesting behaviors of Eastern bluebirds and tufted titmice are relatively similar. 

Both are secondary-cavity nesting birds. 

Both can thrive in the presence of humans. 

However, like with many other species in our rapidly changing planet, the tufted titmouse needs a helping hand to ensure further breeding successes. 

The easiest way to help is through the installation of nest boxes. Typically, these inexpensive structures have “goldilocks” holes – just the right sized entrance hole to allow the tufted titmouse in and non-native bird species out.

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