The weety, weety, weety song and the husky tsick-a-dee-dee call (much like the chickadee sound) of the Oak Titmouse is a sound of our oak woodlands. These little birds (5.5 in.) are ordinary looking, but an oak woodland would seem empty without their subtle presence. The name “titmouse” comes from European sources: tit is Scandinavian for little, and mouse is a corruption of mase, the Old English word for bird.
The Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus) is a drably colored bird with a small pointed crest. Their upper parts are gray, and their underparts are grayish white. The coloration of the crest and face is similar to the remaining upper parts. They have black eyes in an almost blank face. Legs and feet are also black.
Sexes are alike in color, but males are slightly larger than females.
Oak Titmice actively move from branch to branch and tree to tree. They prefer to stay close to cover, flying between trees in shallow undulating motions. They are very rarely seen on or near the ground. Seeds and insects are the main food taken.
Their primary method of capturing insects is gleaning on bark and, to a lesser extent, foliage. Their bills are used in a variety of ways to expose arthropods: pecking and probing into crevices, chipping away bark, and pulling apart leaf galls, flowers, curled dead leaves, and lichens. They sometimes eat grubs out of acorns.
Whereas Edgewood’s chickadees gather in winter flocks, the Oak Titmouse, which is in the same bird family (Paridae), is usually found alone, in pairs, or mixed in with a flock of chickadees.
The titmouse eats with its feet. They are one of the few perching birds that can use their feet to hold seeds while they break them open.
The Oak Titmouse is highly vocal, and individuals are most commonly recognized by their chatter-like calls which males and females utter throughout the year. Males may sing infrequently during the non-breeding season, with singing intensity increasing toward spring.
The song is a series of repeated whistled notes of 3 to 7 syllables, each comprised of one low and one high note. Females apparently have the capacity to sing, but do so only rarely.
No ventriloquist’s dummy, the Oak Titmouse has a remarkable alarm call which is a loud scold that fades off as if the bird is moving into the distance. This may fool predators into chasing the phantom bird while the titmouse stays safely hidden.
The Oak Titmouse nests in natural cavities and old woodpecker holes, some of which are visible in a large oak near Edgewood’s restrooms.
They also use the nest boxes installed throughout the park. Females build their nests with grass, moss, feathers, and shredded bark, mostly from March through April.
Titmice frequently pair up with the same mate throughout their short life, which seldom exceeds five years. Life expectancy in birds is closely correlated with size; the larger the species, the longer it is likely to live. Few birds die of old age; they just run the same gamut of risks year in and year out until they are killed.
Most titmice find a mate in their first fall. Those that do not are excluded from territories and must live in marginal habitats until they find a vacancy.
The female lays 3 to 9 eggs and is the primary incubator. The young are tended by both parents for 16 to 21 days. Parents continue to tend to young for another three to four weeks after the young leave the nest.
The overall population of Oak Titmice is exhibiting significant long-term decline.
Cicero, C. 2000. The Birds of North America. No 485.
By Lee Franks. This article was originally published in the Edgewood Explorer, September 2007.