The Tits (Birds, of Course)

Titmice

From Middle English titmose, compound of tit (“small bird”) and mose, from Old English māse (“titmouse”).

In the U.S there are five species of titmice: the Tufted Titmouse, permanent resident of the eastern U.S.; the Oak Titmouse, resident mainly of the California Valley; the Juniper Titmouse, resident of the southwestern U.S.; the Bridled Titmouse of southern Arizona and Mexico; and the Black Crested Titmouse, a permanent resident in Texas and northern Mexico. They are all easy to identify with their characteristic topknot although the gray Oak and Juniper Titmice are very similar, having been split into two species from the poorly named Plain Titmouse. The American Ornithologists’ Union created the split in 1996, due to distinct differences in song, preferred habitat, and genetic makeup.

Tufted Titmouse

All the titmice belong to the family Paridae, along with chickadees and those called just “tits”, like the Marsh Tit of Europe, Varied Tit of Japan and China, and Yellow-browed Tit of China and India. There are 51 species in the family, widely distributed over Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. Mainly small stocky woodland species with short stout bills, some have crests. Ranging in length from 4.5 to 8 inches, their diet includes insects and seeds; many species will live around human habitation and come readily to bird feeders. Parids are hole-nesting birds, typically using trees, although some species build nests on the ground. They lay three to nineteen speckled white eggs, depending on the species.

My favorite story about tits concerns Blue Tits in England. In the early 1900s the British had milk delivered by wagons to their doorstops. At the beginning of the 20th Century milk was delivered to British doors in bottles that had no tops so birds had easy access to the fat-rich cream that settled at the top of the bottle. Although birds lack the enzyme to digest lactose, cream has little lactose in it and is full of fat energy. Blue Tits learned to drink the cream from the tops of the bottles. Later, after WWI, for health reasons the bottles were sealed with waxed cardboard seals. But the birds just learned to pierce that. Then aluminum foil was used to cover the bottle tops. But this didn’t foil the birds either. Watch.

Apparently a few Blue Tits learned to pierce the aluminum bottle and cardboard seal top to reach the cream and by the 1950s all the Blue Tits in the UK had learned the trick. But how did the birds learn? You would think that one naïve Blue Tit watching an experienced one would learn from the latter. Experiments have shown that the uninitiated Blue Tit did not learn by watching the process but was intrigued enough by the other bird opening the bottle top that it tried to do it itself. The naïve bird will finally open its first bottle, although often by a slightly different process than the one it observed.

Blue Tits also learn from other birds which foods to avoid. In an experiment, caged Blue Tits watched videos of other tits rejecting certain foods. They then avoided those foods themselves. Clever birds.

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