A tufted beauty

No, I won’t play favorites.

I refuse.

How could I choose my favorite among birds?

I love the bright splash of the cardinal. I enjoy the antics of the jay as it opens the feeder to extract another peanut. Nothing heralds the coming of spring as happily as the first day the goslings come up to eat. And I confess I readily talk back to the chickadees, such friendly feeders near the house.

Still … there is something special about the Tufted Titmouse. Maybe it’s just cuter than most though it helps that it too is a frequent visitor at the feeder on my window. Besides, I feel I’m seeing more this winter than in seasons past. There are days it outnumbers all but the chickadees.

My first surprise, when starting to research this jewel, was to read that it is related to the chickadee. The family tree must not be too close, however, for they won’t share the feeder. It’s one or the other – and first there stays until ready to depart.

They come readily for seed or, it says, suet and are happy hanging upside down – like another favorite of mine, the little nuthatch. Should the weather detain me from getting to the feeders as often as they’d like (and, boy, do they eat!), they have learned to be happy with seeds, nuts and berries and, in summer, help out by eating wasps and bees, beetles and bugs and their eggs and pupae. They won’t even turn a nose up at a spider or small snail.

Peterson describes the tufted titmouse as small and gray and mouse-colored. I can think of nothing nastier. Certainly there are lovely grays that aren’t “mouse-colored.” There have to be.

About an inch larger than the chickadee (whose black cap and chin give it no resemblance to the titmouse), the latter has a tufted crest, perhaps the single feature which makes it both distinct and, in my book, “cute.” Note: there is a black-crested titmouse but it’s happy in Texas so we can ignore that one.

They nest in holes already formed in tall trees, generally about 35 feet from the ground. If they are unable to find a natural cavity that pleases, they might move into an old woodpecker hole. While it’s up to the female to do most of the nest building, she thinks nothing of taking hairs from a woodchuck, the family dog or even from a human.

I found it touching that the male brings food for her as an introduction to courtship. Pleased (if not growing downright spoiled), she’ll solicit more by a special “feed-me please” call and what is termed a “wing-quiver.” Our little boys must be happy with this response for the feeding often continues until her eggs have hatched.

Their courtship continues in what must be a mutually satisfactory state. He leaves it up to her to incubate the eggs which can take up to two weeks. (That’s OK – he’s still out gathering her favorites.) And he’ll bring the goodies when mom sits on the nest. Later they take turns feeling what are usually five or six kids though I read that they may also solicit “additional helpers.” Hmmm. The youngsters are off 15 or 16 days after hatching.

The sexes look identical though the immature lack the small black forehead patch just above the upper beak. The chickadees on the other hand have a large black cap and a bib just under their chin. I don’t think anyone could confuse one with the other.

The titmouse has five different calls described by the Stokes who add they also make an amazing variety of whistles and rasping sounds. The birds, not the Stokes (as far as I know).

The easiest perhaps is the “peter peter” sounds of the male in late winter and spring. As the days warm, the frequency of this call increases. The Stokes suggest imitating it when next heard. Usually the male, expecting to encounter a rival, pops into view.

Just one more reason even now to “Think Spring.”

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com