Tufted Titmouse by Christian Goers
Around here, tufted titmouse sightings are a rare treat

(published 11-9-12)

When it comes to birding, patience and luck are essential elements. Skill comes in handy but is not required. I’ve said it before: So much of this hobby is simply waiting, watching and being in the right place at the right time.

Yes, it happened again in my backyard. On Oct. 25 a special bird came to visit, one that I’d been hoping for since 1997. I became all giddy, of course, bounding up the stairs to tell my wife and then sharing the news at work with anybody who would listen.

It was a tufted titmouse, a species that even nonbirders seem vaguely aware of because of its fun-to-say name. Even if they’ve never heard of such a creature the name makes people smile.

I grew up with titmice in Ohio and still see them when we go back to Canton. It is by no means a rare bird throughout most of its range—virtually the entire eastern half of the United States. But in the Chicago region it’s tough to find. Sort of like pileated woodpecker—the range maps in our field guides say it’s here but good luck tracking one down!

There’s that word again, luck. I hadn’t put a new bird on my Glen Ellyn yard list since a golden-winged warbler in 2010, and I’d have missed my “yard lifer” titmouse if I hadn’t decided to have a cup of coffee on the back porch.

Our west-facing porch is my favorite room in the house. This time of year the screens are out, replaced by glass, and on most fall mornings the temperature is just right for enjoying a hot beverage and watching the feeders.

The titmouse arrived almost as soon as I sat down, taking a few nibbles at the peanut feeder before moving over to the black-oil sunflower seeds. In two minutes it was gone. As if to say thanks for breakfast, the bird whistled its distinctive “peter, peter, peter” after flying off.

I reported my sighting on the birding listserve and soon learned of other close encounters of the titmousian kind.

The day before, a tufted titmouse had been heard singing on the grounds of Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Four days earlier, Leslie Cummings observed one in her Wheaton backyard, her second titmouse in 10 years.

Also in October, Matthew Cvetas and his son Jake spotted a titmouse in Evanston, their first in the yard after nine years of observation. It was yard bird No. 140, an impressive number indeed. (I’m now at 112.)

Going back to October 2011, Chicago birders Geoff and Christine Williamson spotted a titmouse at the Jarvis Sanctuary—their first in 22 years of birding Lincoln Park!

A truly bittersweet titmouse story involves Jim and Kate Frazier. In 2010, Jim and I were conducting the Christmas Bird Count at Cantigny Park when his cell phone rang. It was Kate, reporting that a tufted titmouse was in their Batavia backyard, a first-time occurrence after 20 years.

I wouldn’t have faulted Jim if he’d chosen to ditch the CBC and high-tail it back home. He didn’t, and unfortunately the titmouse was a “one-day wonder,” not to be seen again. On that cold winter day, Kate scored the top prize without ever leaving home!

The tufted titmouse is closely related to the black-capped chickadee. Like chickadees they are cavity nesters and non-migratory. But unlike chickadees, they are scarce in DuPage.

It wasn’t always so. Kate Frazier grew up in Glen Ellyn and recalls titmice being common feeder birds in the mid-1960s. “Birds of The Morton Arboretum,” a booklet from the same era, also indicates that tufted titmice were regular. “Frequent in the woods,” wrote Floyd Swink. “Its cheery whistle is a commonly heard song.”

So what happened? For one thing, West Nile virus; studies show that tufted titmouse was among the hardest hit species when the avian disease emerged here in 1999.

I found another clue in “Birds of Forest, Yard, & Thicket,” published in 1997 by John Eastman. In the titmouse chapter he wrote: “During the past 50 years, observers have traced this bird’s remarkable northward range expansion . . . Since about 1965, however, this expansion has slowed and halted in many areas.”

Chicagoland may be one of those areas. Eastman also noted that titmice are “not so adaptive to various habitats” as chickadees. This, and perhaps stiff competition for nest holes, would make recovery from West Nile even more challenging.

But I’m just a birder who is speculating, not an ornithologist. All I really know is that tufted titmouse is one fine bird to see in DuPage County. When you do, savor the moment because it seems this locally elusive species seldom stays in one place for long.

Copyright 2012 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.