Speaking of Nature: Embrace and cherish our birds

  • The tufted titmouse is a more colorful member of the genus. Bill Danielson said he particularly likes the little black spot of feathers by the bird’s nose. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • One look at the oak titmouse and you can see why the species was originally known as the plain titmouse. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

Sunday, November 19, 2017

After writing this column for 20 years, I can safely say that there are few local birds I have not covered. Some have been mentioned only a few times, while others have been revisited on several occasions. This is particularly true for species that have a strong seasonal association.

Bluebirds make me think of spring. Mockingbirds make me think of summer. And, birds like nuthatches, chickadees and titmice make me think of late fall and winter. I could write about these birds every year and not get tired of them.

My great concern is that you, dear reader, might get tired of yet another story about the birds that come to our local feeders. So, I try to mix things up from time to time.  

The juncos are back in town, but what else might be going on in this big world of ours that could be of interest? I think I’ve come upon a new topic that will let me get away with writing about a local favorite and a new species from far away lands. I am speaking of birds known as titmice.

Here in the eastern United States, we have an adorable species called the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor). About the size of a chickadee, the tufted titmouse is a faithful visitor to backyard feeders, and will often be heard singing its bright, emphatic “peter, peter, peter” song in the early spring. Like chickadees, these little birds are bold, brassy creatures that will approach humans in a way that will make you believe they are just checking in to see what’s going on. I’ve often thought that while I’m out bird watching, the titmice are out people watching.

Although individual titmice may move around a little, the general consensus is that the species is not migratory.

The species’ range extends from coastal New Hampshire west to the eastern edges of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The range then heads back east along the Gulf Coast to Florida, where it crosses the peninsula back to the Atlantic Coast. In the eastern half of the United States, the tufted titmouse is the only titmouse.

As you move west into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, however, you will continue to encounter titmice. Back in 1988, when I was just starting my official training in wildlife biology, there were only two species of titmice in the west: the plain titmouse (Parus inormatus) and the bridled titmouse (P. wollweberi).

Thirty years later, (is that even possible?) the genus Parus has been dramatically reduced. Only a handful of European species still occupy this grouping, while there has been much activity redesignating species in the New World.

The plain titmouse no longer exists. Instead, researchers have discovered sufficient differences in songs, habitat use and genetics to break the one species into two new species: the oak titmouse (Baeolophus inormatus) and the juniper timouse (B. ridgwayi). You will notice that the oak titmouse retains the original species name of the plain titmouse, which, as luck would have it, is the Latin word for “plain.”

I happened to cross paths with this bird while on an expedition to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, Calif. I was at the visitors center in a small courtyard that had a soda machine and some picnic tables for relaxing and enjoying a bag lunch. I was captivated by that Allen’s hummingbird that I wrote about back in September, but I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, and turned to find myself looking at a bird I had never seen before.  

The oak titmouse is basically a titmouse. The differences between the various species are largely the result of the extreme changes in habitat that occur from the forests of the east through the arid southwest and back into the forests of the west.  

Since the birds do not migrate, there is no mixing of genes, and when a new mutation occurs, it may take hold in one mini population but never be introduced to adjacent populations. The same factors influence songs, which have diverged much like different human languages have done.

So, remember that it’s a big beautiful world out there. Almost everyone in the United States can enjoy seeing a titmouse at the feeder, and our brothers and sisters in Europe have their own versions, as well. Embrace and cherish “your” birds, but don’t forget that there are other beautiful species out there, as well.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.