Providing Nest Material for Titmice
The male tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is singing his signature "peter peter" call in early spring as the birds' breeding season begins. Look for him on a prominent perch as he defines his territory and attempts to attract a mate.
The tufted titmouse is a common woodland bird found in the eastern United States. A bit larger than a chickadee, it is easily recognized with its pale gray back, white belly, and orange flanks. Jet black eyes on a white face, a short bill, and a gray crest atop its head give the bird an intelligent, insistent look. While the male and female look alike, they can sometimes be separated by their behavior.
Titmice nest in natural tree cavities, old woodpecker holes, and nest boxes placed near woodlands. The female builds the nest, carrying large mouthfuls of dried leaves, bark, and moss to the nest cavity for about a week as the male looks on. (He helps by bringing her food in a ritual behavior known as "mate-feeding." The female will quiver her wings and begin a high-pitched whistle while the male offers her an insect or other morsel.) She finishes her cozy nest by lining it with animal fur; titmice have been observed plucking hair from the backs of raccoons and woodchucks, and also, believe it or not, from humans.
I was fortunate enough to experience this firsthand last April while sitting on my deck. With my back to the deck railing, a titmouse hopped along the railing behind me. Honestly, I sensed what was coming. I remained motionless as she fluttered her wings against the back of my head several times, trying to figure out how she was going to get a piece of my hair. After about 30 seconds she flew off and I laughed and went inside to comb some cat fur from our big gray tiger, Otis. I tucked it into the slats in the deck table and waited to see if she'd accept it. (We offer cat fur every year and the titmice, nuthatches, and chickadees always take it for their nests.)
A few minutes later I heard her behind me again. This time she flew to the top of my head and perched there while she tried to pull hair from my scalp. Once she even pecked my head, though very gently. I could feel her tiny feet grasping my scalp as she tugged at the roots with her bill, to no avail. She finally flew to the back of another chair; her bill was empty as she focused her little shark eyes on me before flying off. A few days later she tried again, but was, alas, unsuccessful. Animal fur is so much easier!
If you have tufted titmice in your area, provide them with fur combed from your dog or cat by placing it in a hanging mesh bag or by tucking it into a crevice in tree bark. (Be sure your pet has not been treated with flea or tick pesticides.) The female will take advantage of your gift by carefully pulling tufts of fur from the pile and flying directly to the nest with her prize. You can often locate a titmouse nest cavity by following a comically mustachioed female. If the nest was built in a nest box that you monitor and clean, the surprise of finding your pet's fur in a box at the end of the season should leave you grinning.
Submitted by Cindi Kobak