The Bushtit, San Diego County’s smallest songbird, is a long-tailed, effervescent, beady-eyed wisp of a thing that would easily go unnoticed if it led a solitary life—which it most definitely does not. A creature of the pack except during breeding season, it is almost never found alone, often traveling in groups of 6−40 birds. A flock moves like a lively cloud around and through trees and bushes, sounding like miniature, animated squeaky toys as they utter a variety of sibilant “chips” and excited twitters.
Slightly darker above than below, a Bushtit overall is plain stealth-gray with a muted wash of brown. In shape, it resembles a ping pong ball with a long tail. Males and juveniles have dark eyes; females, pale eyes. (This bird almost never stands still, so you’ll not often get that good a look at the eyes of these dervishes in the wild.)
The Bushtit ranks as one of the county’s most common songbirds. Habitat generalists, they occur in open and mixed woodlands, drier habitats (coastal chapparal), and wetter riparian corridors. Bushtits reside throughout the county’s coastal slope and down the eastern slope of the mountains to the desert’s edge. The birds move freely between natural and landscaped environments, indifferent to fragmentation of native habitat by urban development.
Bushtits feed on spiders and small insects, including the tiny scale insects that adhere to leaves and twigs, as well as aphids, leafhoppers, beetles, ants, and small caterpillars. Bushtits flit nervously through trees and bushes, hanging, picking, gleaning, and keeping contact through a constant banter of soft bell-like chirps. Despite the number of individuals involved and the obvious movement, foraging birds can be surprisingly furtive. Typically, I have to wait until a flock streams across an opening from one bush to another to get anything even vaguely resembling a count of individuals.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bushtits is their unusual nests. Their nervous energy fuels an extended nest-building phase, which can last almost two months. The male and female both help build a surprisingly large, hanging nest—a gourd-shaped bag up to a foot long with a roofed top and a small entrance hole below the roof. This remarkable nest is built of spider web and bits of plant material—moss, lichen, leaves, cocoons, grass—matted into the consistency of felt or dryer lint. Inside, the adults add insulating material such as feathers, fur, and downy plant matter; they also camouflage the outside with pieces from nearby plants.
Bushtits pair off and begin nest-building as early as late March. A nest usually contains five to eight eggs, and the parents share incubation duties. Young hatch in 12−13 days and remain in the nest 12−14 days. While the nest is active all the adults associated with it (the breeding pair plus any helpers) sleep in it—unusual among songbirds. After fledging, the young continue to beg from the adults for at least two weeks. The pair typically reuses the nest for their second brood of the season, which continues through July.
The origin of the Bushtit’s scientific name, Psaltriparus minimus (especially the genus name), is a bit of a mystery—or the result of someone with a vivid imagination. It combines the genera Psaltria and Parus. Psaltria, from Greek psaltria, means “harpist,” allegedly referring the bird’s song. (Have you heard this bird’s vocalizations? Seems like quite a stretch to me.) Parus comes from the Latin word for “titmouse” (which taxonomically this species is not). Taxonomists be just a bit crazy, I’d say. The species name, minimus, comes from Latin for “the smallest.” (Now that makes sense for this munchkin of a bird.) The common name—Bushtit—refers to the bird’s habitat (“bush”) and “tit,” a name that comes from Icelandic tittr, meaning anything small.
Many people describe the tiny Bushtit as just a little gray bird. But it is really much more, with its non-stop insect ingestion. When the weather is warm, Bushtits need to eat 80% of their body weight each day to keep up with their speedy metabolisms; they eat even more in cooler weather. One estimate suggests that a single Bushtit eats over three pounds of insect matter every year. So farmers and gardeners should be especially delighted to host a flock of Bushtits. Yet family groups wander around in obscurity, dishing out free pest control far and wide. Their lackluster reputation might benefit from a fleet of tiny trucks with advertising magnetic signs to inform a too-often ungrateful public.
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