If you’re lucky enough to live in—or visit frequently—a pinyon/juniper habitat, you have a chance to see one of my favorite songbirds—the Juniper Titmouse. (Cick on the Wikimedia Commons photo to the right to see a larger version of this adorable little bird.) A little, medium (some might say “drab”) gray sprite, the Juniper Titmouse once shared a species with the most western Oak Titmouse—referred to by the unflattering common name of Plain Titmouse. All titmice and the closely related chickadees reside in the Paridae family. In North America, we call the parid species with crests titmice; those without crests, chickadees.
Few species depend so completely on a single habitat as this titmouse does. In the first Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas work, observers reported more than 96% of their Juniper Titmouse sightings in pinyon/juniper woodlands. In Colorado, these woodlands range from thin stands of all juniper at lower altitudes to dense stands made up of mostly pinyon pine, with just scatterings of junipers, at higher elevations. Juniper Titmice thrive in all of these variations but almost nowhere else.
Juniper Titmice eat small nuts and fruits, seeds, berries, and insects when they’re available. They forage by hopping about in branches and larger twigs, sometimes even hanging upside down. They also come to feeders, with a special fondness for black oil sunflower seeds and suet. They open nuts and seeds by holding them with their feet and hammering with their bills. If you watch one at a feeder, you’ll see it zip in, grab a seed, fly off to a sheltered area to eat it, zip back in, grab another seed, zip off to eat it—and so on. During the short winter days, when gathering is limited by short days, titmice can lower their body temperatures from higher than 107o during the day to a mere 86o in the dead of a winter’s night to conserve precious energy reserves.
Juniper Titmice form life-long pair bonds during their first year, although “lifelong” probably means 2 or 3 years, given their rather short lifespan in the wild. Both sexes defend their territory year-round. Juniper Titmice often place nests in nooks and crannies in the twisted, gnarled trunks of older juniper trees as well knotholes and other natural cavities, which occur surprisingly frequently in juniper stands. They also use nest boxes; we typically have 1 or 2 pairs raising a brood in our boxes each spring. In our area, they are among our earliest songbird nesters, with egg laying beginning by early April. The female lays a clutch of 4 – 6 (although in our boxes, 2 – 3 is more common). She alone incubates the clutch and seldom flushes from her nest. During the days before she begins incubating the completed clutch, the female often covers the eggs with soft material such as feathers or fur before she leaves the nest. Hatching after an incubation period of 14 – 16 days, nestlings remain in the nest for another 16 – 21 days. Both parents share the tasks of bringing food to their nestlings. The young leave the nest when they can climb to the cavity entrance; however, they tend not to fly out of the nest in response to the parents’ agitated chatter but rather just tumble to the ground—sometimes from as high as 10 or 12 feet above the ground—and scamper for the cover of a nearby bush. I’ve witnessed this exodus from one of our boxes; even at less than 5 feet from the ground, it seemed a tough entrance into the world but all 3 did just fine. Families stay together for up to a month after fledging. Most sources say that Juniper Titmice have only one brood a year. However, I came across an unusual 2nd nesting by a Juniper Titmouse in our boxes one summer, which I wrote up in 2009 as a field note for Colorado Birds, the journal of Colorado Field Ornithologists
The Juniper Titmouse’s genus name, Baeolophus, derives primarily from Greek for ”having a small crest”—baios (short or small) and lophos (a crest on a bird’s head). The species name, ridgwayi, honors Robert Ridgway, an American ornithologist from the early 20th century. The common name refers to its preferred habitat (“juniper”) and a small bird, from tittr—Icelandic for anything small—and an Anglo-Saxon name—mase—for small birds. (Iceland, you ask? The titmice we have in North American don’t exist in Iceland, but they do have other members of the Paridae family, which in Europe are typically called “tits.” Yes, that’s right. Doesn’t work all that well here in the U.S., does it?)
I have had the wondrous opportunity of many up-close-and-personal experiences with Juniper Titmice when monitoring our nest boxes. Starting in late March, we hang an old suet cage stuffed with dog hair on a tree near our feeders; the Juniper Titmice can often be spotted tugging out tufts and flying off with a “dog hair moustache.” At least once a season, I have been hissed at by an incubating female when I’ve opened a box while she’s incubating her clutch. It used to startle me—is there a snake around? But now I just smile, wish her well, and close up the box. And one of my favorite titmice seemed to have a flair for nest decorating. I found pieces of purple fuzz woven into her nest—fuzz that she had plucked off one of the dog toys we leave in the dog run. Martha Stewart, stand back!