An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of October 3, 2004

issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills

CLOUDS OF BUSHTITS

If Acorn Woodpeckers are attention-getting here because of their abundance and bright patterning, and California Quail because of their charming neatness, then the Bushtits, PSALTRIPARUS MELANOTIS, are conspicuous because they move about in spectacular, peeping flocks. The first time I saw a flock drifting from one Madrone tree to another I thought I was seeing a wave of dried leaves carried on a breeze.

Bushtit, PSALTRIPARUS MINIMUSIf you take a mousy-gray, backyard titmouse, make it a bit smaller, remove its crest and dramatically increase the length of its tail, you have a Bushtit. Bushtits even behave like titmice, habitually probing for tiny insects and mites with their petite, black beaks into every fissure, around ever loose scale and beneath every leaf a tree or bush might have. As their flocks of ten to thirty or more birds move among the trees, some of them emit sharp calls that any birder would identify as "tit-like." That's a Bushtit at the right.

My old fieldguides assign Bushtits to the same bird family as titmice and chickadees. However, recent studies show that Bushtits are not as closely related to titmice and chickadees as they seem. Now Bushtits are placed in the Long-tailed Tit Family, the Aegithalidae, formed mostly of Eurasian species.

If earlier ornithologists had paid more attention to behavior than to outward appearances, they might have guessed that Bushtits were not just crestless titmice. Titmice nest in abandoned woodpecker holes, natural cavities and nest boxes, but Bushtits are known for constructing complex, pendant, gourd-shaped bag-nests of grass, leaves and twigs bound with spider web. Other members of the Aegithalidae likewise build woven bag nests in trees.

You can't keep from liking Bushtits. They are so small, full of energy and curiosity that your spirit just has to rise when you watch them, the same as if you were watching kids or pups thoroughly enjoying themselves.