Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches
Nature Bulletin No. 179-A February 13, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
, TITMICE AND NUTHATCHE.
Of the songbirds which remain in the northern portions of the central
and eastern states all winter, there are three very closely related yet
entirely different in appearance the chickadee, the titmouse and the
nuthatch. Elsewhere the species may be different, but in the Chicago
area we have the Black-capped Chickadee, the Tufted Titmouse, and
the White-breasted Nuthatch. The red-breasted nuthatch is an
irregular migrant from far north.
People who roam the woodlands in wintertime, and particularly those
who live near a wooded area and maintain a bird-feeding board at
home -- whether in the country, in the suburbs, or near a park or a
cemetery in the city -- soon come to know these three. They are
primarily insect eaters, valuable because they search for and consume
great quantities of the eggs, larvae, pupae and adults of insects
harmful to shade trees, orchards and forest trees. Therefore, they are
particularly fond of sunflower and other fatty seeds, suet, and a
doughball mixture of cornmeal, oatmeal, a little white flour and
melted fat. These three and the cardinal, the bluejay, the downy
woodpecker, and the junco comprise our most common native
songbirds in winter.
Smallest of the three and most trustful -- first to investigate a feeding
board -- is the round fluffy little chickadee: very saucy, very spruce in
its livery of black, gray and white. Smaller than a sparrow, it is the
only bird with a black cap and a black bib under its chin. It has a very
short bill and its eye, surrounded by the edge of the black cap, is
almost invisible. It is the most vividly cheerful and active citizen of the
winter woods, blithely hustling about in snowstorms and bitter cold,
occasionally calling a cheery "Chicka-dee-dee, day-day-day". It is
quite an acrobat and as it flits thru the woods you may see it turn a
somersault to alight on the underside of a branch which it proceeds to
investigate, out to the twigs and buds, for insects. It also likes small
berries, such as those of poison ivy.
The Tufted Titmouse, or tomtit, or sugar bird, is more wary and is apt
to appear suddenly on your feeding board, seize a morsel and dart
away. When it becomes tamer it will jab away at a chunk of suet or
seize a seed between its feet and crack it with rapid hammer-strokes of
its bill. The titmouse has a pointed crest, long slender tail, large dark
eyes and a strong cone-shaped bill. Its upper plumage is mousy gray,
tinged with olive on the back. The lower parts are whitish, washed
with rusty color on the flanks.
Like the chickadee, it works along the upper branches and twigs of
trees searching for insects, but it is not so fond of queer positions. Its
song is a loud clear whistle: "Peter, peter, peter". Both of these birds,
and the nuthatch, nest in old woodpecker holes, tree cavities, or
cavities they excavate in punky wood, but the titmouse nearly always
includes an old snakeskin in its nesting material, and a lot of hair. It
has been seen plucking hairs from a squirrel's tail, and from the back
of a woodchuck.
The nuthatch, or "upside-down-bird", is much different: more
deliberate, and fond of creeping jerkily up and down the trunks and
larger branches of trees, usually head downward, silently probing for
insects. Occasionally it will utter a nasal "Yank, yank". Bluish-gray
above, it has a black cap, beady black eyes set in white cheeks, but no
black bib below its chin. It has a stubby tail and a long bill, perkily
pointed slightly upward. Unlike the chickadee and titmouse it will
place a seed in a crevice of bark and then hammer at it. They also store
food in such cracks. No other tree climber habitually goes down tree
Take a winter walk and get acquainted with our feathered friends.
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Update: June 2012