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Bird World Food Scouts, Titmice and Chickadees

Updated on May 17, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Food Finders

Carolina Chickadee checking the seed level in the feeder.
Carolina Chickadee checking the seed level in the feeder. | Source

One wonders sometimes about how birds find neighborhood feeders. Yes, mostly I suppose they just wander on them by accident and then visit regularly for the easy pickings, but I’ve noticed some signs of a grape vine messaging system between birds.

Blue Jays are one such feeder finder. When a Jay finds a feeder well stocked, they check out the area from a high perch, then dive down to check the offerings. I have then seen the Jay go back up to a high perch and make a loud call in all four directions of the compass. In minutes, the neighborhood birds start making appearances.

While the Blue Jay is the loudest calling out primarily to flock mates, all birders will tell you that there are two others, partners, that seem to act as the primary neighborhood feeder scouts. These two are Titmice and Chickadees.

Birds typically don’t have a great sense of smell, so they track down food by sight. Our little chickadees and titmice need lots of energy food to keep going, so they are always on the lookout. When they find a good source, a source like a feeder with more food than one or two birds can eat, they, like the Jay, will give out a call to flock mates. These calls then attract other birds to the area. These two bird buddies find feeders like magnets find north. Rapidly afterward, your feeder is on the map.

Tufted Titmouse

Titmouse found a treasure trove of seeds and peanuts.
Titmouse found a treasure trove of seeds and peanuts. | Source

Titmice and Chickadees

Both these birds are part of the Paridae family but of different genus groupings. Here in East Texas, I have the Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee. In the south, west, and central areas of the state, the Black-crested Titmouse holds prominence. Only the Carolina Chickadee is found in Texas, ranging only across the eastern half of the state.

Where the two are found together, they make a dynamic-duo for finding forage. Both birds are also resident birds, keeping territories in a set place year round. They have adapted for enduring cold winters and storing cashes of food. This makes them experts for locating bird friendly yards. As such, other birds seem to keep an ear out for their calls.

Black-crested Titmouse

Black-crested Titmouse of the Rio Grande Valley and western half of the state.
Black-crested Titmouse of the Rio Grande Valley and western half of the state. | Source

Chickadee Species Overview

Diet: Omnivore – seeds, insects and berries

Average life span: 11.5 years oldest known through banding

Size: 4 to 6 in (12 to 16 cm)

Weight: 0.3 to 0.5 oz (9 to 14 g)

Habitat: Deciduous forests, suburbs and parks and open woodlands

Chickadee Photo Gallery

Picking out seeds to store in winter
Picking out seeds to store in winter | Source
Gathering nest material in Spring
Gathering nest material in Spring | Source

Chickadee Facts

This brave little fellow is the more outgoing part of this duo. He belongs to the Poecile genus or Chickadees. There are seven divisions all living in the new world. The Carolina Chickadee gained its name from John James Audubon, who discovered it in South Carolina. They look very much like the Black-capped Chickadee of the Northeast and will hybridize in areas where their territories converge. The Carolina differs from the black-capped by its faster paced call and its lack of white edging in the wing feathers. The black bib is also smaller and has cleaner edges.

Carolina Chickadees prefer mixed deciduous-coniferous forests, swamps, riparian areas. They can be found in open areas, parks, suburban and urban landscapes.

Winter Behavior

During migration and winter they band together close flocks. This is likely when mating pairs are decided before spring.

Cornell Lab studies say these birds have a 50/50 plant and animal diet in the winter, but switch to an 80 or 90 percent spider and insect diet in the summer. The Audubon Guide says that caterpillars seem to be their favorite food.

Come fall, however, the birds become meticulous pantry builders. A study by Purdue scientist Jeffrey Lucas showed that Chickadees are very careful to make sure they have the right amount of food for the winter.

“Lucas says birds seem to make conscious decisions about food storage. He is interested in how birds know when to store food vs. when to eat it, or when to "cash in" on stored food. He predicted that if seeds were stolen from the birds' storage sites, they would reduce the amount they stored and would compensate by eating more to keep their fat reserves high. He found, instead, that the chickadees were more concerned about counting savings than calories. Not only did the birds store additional seeds to make up for stolen goods, but they replaced the stolen seeds in a ratio of almost 1-to-1.”

The study also shows that Chickadees gage their climate to decide how much to store. “Chickadees that live in northern Canada, for example, will store tens of thousands of seeds over a number of acres, and then remember where those seeds are. The Carolina chickadee, which lives in a much milder environment, may store hundreds of seeds over several acres."Carolinas are known to associate with a number of other birds such as the Titmouse as mentioned along with Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned kinglets, Red-breasted, White-breasted and Brown-headed nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Downy and Hairy woodpeckers. This agrees with my own observations about the way some bird species seem to follow each other to my feeder.

One morning after I had been away several weeks, I put out new feed and within 10 minutes a titmouse followed by a chickadee flew into a nearby tree to check it out. The Chickadee dove down to the platform feeder digging greedily into the sunflower seeds. The Titmouse had a warier attitude. He came down only long enough to quickly grab a peanut and then fly back to his tree perch. There he held his peanut in his feet to chip off pieces with his beak. After filling up, the two disappeared; but I could hear the Titmouse’s Peter peter peter call. A moment later, a Downy and then Red-bellied Woodpecker made a quick flight to my platform, gobbling peanuts one after another. The Carolina wrens and sparrows showed up soon after . . . and then someone messed up and told the squirrels. Oh well, they have to eat too.

Spring Behavior

Come mating time, Carolinas are more territorial. Pairs will space themselves out within their flock’s territories of find nest sites. These birds are cavity nesters. They will excavate their own nest, take over an abandoned cavity or chose a nest box. The female will lay 3 to 10 eggs and sleep in the cavity while the male will spend the night on a protected branch or vine cover nearby. They will raise only one brood a year; but if a nesting attempt fails, the female is known to leave her flock and mate to seek out a mate in a different territory. Chicks will leave the nest about 13-17 days after hatching.

Titmouse Species Overview

Diet: Omnivore – seeds, insects and berries

Average life span: 13 years three months, oldest known through banding

Size: 5.5 to 6 in (14 to 16 cm)

Weight: 0.6 to 0.9 oz (18 to 26 g)

Habitat: Deciduous forests and mixed evergreens, orchards, suburbs and parks

Titmouse Gallery

Tufted Titmouse scouting the yard
Tufted Titmouse scouting the yard | Source
Holding a peanut in his feet
Holding a peanut in his feet | Source

Titmouse Tales

While the winter mixed flock groupings appear to be a cooperative behavior for food location, there is a pecking order involved. And to my surprise the tiny titmouse is the assertive one. The Chickadee is lead bird, unless there are titmice present.

The Titmouse is of the Baeolophus genus. There are 46 species around the world, 10 in North America. The Tufted Titmouse is the most widely recognized. It ranges from Florida and East Texas in the south up the Mississippi Delta and into Southern Canada. The Black patch over its short beak is diagnostic along with the orange-ish flanks seen just below the wings.

This tiny bird with big black eyes also prefers forest habitats, making it an easy partner with the Chickadee. Unike their Chickadee friends, they do not flock through the winter. They stay in pairs, with juveniles joining pairs, usually their own young from their last mating, but others may join the family unit too. Titmice also share the Chickadee’s tastes in food. Insects make up close to two-thirds of a Titmouse’s annual diet, with caterpillars the preferred prey in summer.

Come Spring, pairs establish their own territories, but unlike their Chickadee cousins, cannot make their own cavity nest. They are dependent on old woodpecker holes, but will also accept nest boxes and metal poles. Traffic light poles make for great nesting sites.

A female can lay from 3 to 9 eggs per clutch. She lines her nest with hair taken live from a donor. Donors can include horses, cows, rabbits, cats and dogs, opossum, woodchucks and humans. This gives us more than one reason to wear a hat in the spring.

At first, the female will stay with the chicks and the male finds food. Later, both parents share the feeding chore. Sometimes yearlings from the previous spring will also help. Titmouse young will leave nest about 15-16 days after hatching.

In winter, Titmice also store seeds. If you have a feeder, you will notice the titmice coming down repeatedly to grab seeds. The main difference between spring and fall feeding is that they don’t eat as many of the seeds after shelling. Most will be carried away to a hoarding hole.

Final Word

In the wild, it is all about finding the three basics: food, water and cover. If you want to attract birds, you have to provide all three to bring them in. Attract these two advance scouts and you will have everyone’s attention.

Happy Birding

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