24 Aug Best Friends – Nature Column
All of us can relate to special people in our lives whom we fondly consider best friends. In our bird world here in the Hill Country two species of birds hang out together for the best part of the year – Black-crested Titmice and Carolina Chickadees. Except for the brief breeding season, these birds can almost always be found roaming around together. Where you see one, you most likely will see the other. A scenario we attach to “best friends.”
Both birds belong to the same family, a family called “tits” by the British and Europeans. The British call chickadees and titmice, “tits,” a Middle English word meaning “little.” Small they are, being about the same size as our smaller wrens and only slightly larger than our hummingbirds. Both are very agile and acrobatic in nature and are often seen hanging upside down as they forage for seeds and insects.
Both birds are gregarious and form loose flocks with other small birds, like warblers, nuthatches, wrens and creepers. Although we see these birds together and might presume they are best of friends, the likely reason for their companionship is protection through safety in numbers. However, as these birds are so small, it is hard to imagine a predator wasting any effort to feed on them except as an hors d’oeuvre?
I presume that everyone knows these two sprites from their propensity of hanging around backyard feeders. They are likely the first two birds to show up for a meal after you place a feeder in your back yard. Both wear black hats; titmice have pointy hats and chickadees have caps. They are fairly tame and can be approached once they get familiar with your tending to the feeders. Both are very adaptable to different types of food offered them. They are not primarily seedeaters, but they are fond of black oil sunflower seeds.
They are not equipped to break seed hulls open with their tiny thin beaks; they take a seed to a nearby limb, hold it with their toes and hammer the seed husk apart to get at the morsel inside. Equipped or not, they make many quick trips to the feeder to get their fill. When they tire of opening seeds, they might go to the suet feeder to add a little fat to their diets. For a change in taste, they might be found searching the tree bark for insects.
Singing ability must be a tit family trait, as both birds can be heard on spring mornings applying their talents to the community dawn chorus. The chickadee has a dainty voice that often repeats the sound of its name, “chick-adee-deee.” The deeper voiced titmouse has a whole litany of songs and calls from which to choose. The latter’s voice is quite strong and can fool you into thinking he might be several different birds.
When I am counting or just birding for fun, I have learned over the years that the sound of chickadees and titmice is a clue to pay careful attention to see who else might be working with them. Most of the time several other birds of interest including the ones I mentioned earlier and other species such as kinglets, vireos and small woodpeckers will be accompanying the black-crowned “buddies.”
As creatures with imaginations, we like to ascribe human associations to the birds. Since these birds are almost always together, it is fun to believe they are “best friends.”