The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a small bird who raises large families.
Having a lot of children isn’t uncommon in the natural world but titmice parents are unusual in that they often follow the sitcom script for managing a Full House. On the other hand, given that this grayscale avian has been around since long before black-and-white TVs, maybe it’s more accurate to say that show-runners follow the Titmouse playbook when they create stories about fictional Family Ties.
Titmice are a great example of “like attracts like.” Male and female are teapot short and stout (5½ to 6¼ in or 14 to 16 cm from bill to tail-tip), albeit lankier than most of their cousins. Both are dapper in their tarnished silver blazers, matching feathered caps, antique ivory turtlenecks, and unbuttoned copper-stained vests, accessorized with large black eyes and an abbreviated, pointed black beak topped by a terse column of feathers of the same hue.
Once paired, The Honeymooners find a place to call home and stay put. Their relatives, the chickadees and tits, are quite social, gathering in flocks once the year’s crop of kids has been raised. Nevertheless, the introverted Titmouse disposition makes staying close to home a more appealing option, even when there’s an Empty Nest.
Speaking of said nest… Mrs & Mr T are really into Home Improvement. They’ll find an unclaimed tree cavity, vacated woodpecker dugout, a well-placed nest box, or handy metal pipe, then fix-‘er-up, singing “peter, peter, peter!” while they work (it’s a fine name but I hope they’ve got several more on the list).
Repurposed materials used for redecorating including moss, grass, strips of bark, scraps of cotton or wool, scavenged cigarette filters, and human hair. Titmice like to add a touch of luxury if possible, rummaging for tufts of fur from all manner of mammals, including raccoons and opossums, cows and horses, squirrels and rabbits, cats and dogs. Resolute titmice have even been observed harvesting the raw materials for this insulating layer directly from live animals when second-hand stocks are low.
Once the couple have prepped the nursery, Mom-to-be gets to work fabricating 4 to 8 cream-colored eggs peppered with persimmon, pomegranate, plum, or pecan pigments. She stays home to keeps them safe and warm, Dad heads out each day to collect enough insects, spiders, snails, seeds, nuts, and berries to keep the pair fed, and for 12 to 14 days it’s a scene straight out of the Happy Daysera. Then the kids begin to experience Growing Painsin their claustrophobic nursery-shells, kick their way out to greet the world, and commence a constant chorus of “I’m hungry!”
Most songbirds are independent at two or three months of age, and their parents are keen to have them leave home. In an odd-for-avians plot twist, though, Tufted Titmice not only tolerate a longer launch countdown, they’ll recruit the previous breeding season’s offspring to help with the care and feeding of their younger siblings.
Kieran J. Lindsey, PhD, is an urban wildlife biologist, writer, and personal assistant to her wire-fox terrier, Dash. Kieran is co-author of Urban Wildlife Management, the first textbook on the subject. Additional wildlife career experiences include: Executive Director of the TWRC wildlife rehabilitation and education center (1997-1999, Houston, TX); former columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (The Urban Jungle, 1998-2001); producer, writer, and host of Wild Things Radio!on KUNM-FM (1999-2001, Albuquerque, NM); Emmy® award-winning documentary producer. Currently, Kieran is Director of Virginia Tech's Online Master of Natural Resources program, Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, and blogger at nextdoornature.org. She lives and works in Lafayette Square (because the Internet is amazing).