Now that I am retired, Eileen and I decided to travel. At the time of this writing in Mid-January we are not far from Charleston, SC.
How different! Instead of cold weather, it is spring-like. We look out our window and see birds not regularly seen at this time around our home in Pennsylvania. We see flowers in bloom. We hear the birds singing.
Back at home at this time, I would be listening carefully to hear the first bird song of the season, usually a tufted titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor. Each year, the first bird song provides me cheap a thrill. My brain performs a happy dance; “Spring approaches.”
This diminutive and very common bird, recognized by its small size, gray color, and prominent crest, offers many lessons. I like understanding the etymology of names. As listed above, the bird, has a common name—tufted titmouse—and a scientific name—Baeolophus bicolor. What a mouthful. If one takes the time to translate the scientific names from their Latin or Greek origins, often everything make sense. In Greek, “Baeo” means “little” an apt description of this and many birds. “Lophus” translate to “crest.” Bicolor just means two colors. In the common name, the “tufted” also refers to the crest, the “tit” means “small” in old English, and the “mouse” may be derived from the Old Norse, “meis” in “meisingr” which is a kind of bird, the proto Germanic word “maison‘ which means “bird,” or it may just have been the word used to describe similar birds in Europe.
Many birds, like the tufted titmouse, have a large repertoire of sounds. Scientists generally lump these sounds into two groups: calls and songs. Birds sing call notes all year long. These serve the purpose of keeping birds together or warning of danger. A song is different. A song generally defines territory or attracts a mate.
During the breeding season, one wants to defend a territory from all competitors in order to ensure ample food for the growing family. The songs sung, mostly by the male, defines the territory and keeps the spouse nearby and, hopefully, faithful. A strong pair may be together for life, so finding and defending a good territory that supplies all the needs for living is paramount.
Birds make every effort to keep interlopers and competitors at bay by singing often and from all around the edges of their turf. Once the breeding season draws to a close, most birds stop singing. I am certain that a loud announcement of presence has inherent risks. Why advertise your location unnecessarily?
During the winter months, the tufted titmice, usually a breeding pair, joined by the young of the year and maybe an outsider, hang around with other birds like chickadee, downy woodpecker, nuthatch, and kinglets. Generally, these mixed species flocks explore a territory much larger than the breeding territory. The birds depend upon their companions to be watchful for food and danger. There is a benefit to being in a crowd; more eyes and ears. If one watches the titmouse, you may note the titmouse frequently lead the group, arriving first and leaving first. Around this time of the year, that period of silence changes as the tufted titmouse blurt out their “peter, peter, peter” songs. Why now?
(above is a tape I made at my home of the typical tufted titmouse song)
Undoubtedly, you noticed the lengthening days of winter. Most people associate long nights and short days with winter, but this is also the province of fall. After the first day of winter, the winter solstice, the days grow longer. In the fall, after the autumnal equinox, they grow shorter. At any given latitude, the length of the day provides a rock solid, never changing from year to year marker. This change in available light does not go unnoticed in the natural world.
As the days get longer and the nights get shorter (scientist are still uncertain which is the trigger), the hormones in plants and animals change. The scientific term for this is photoperiod. One can find many scientist studies proving plants and animals exhibit photoperiod responses.
By using such a stable indicator as the amount of light or darkness at a given time of the year, nature assures the plants and animals are prepared for the proper season. Temperature varies too wildly to be dependable. Light is guaranteed.
Consider our tufted titmouse. Some, to me, unknown internal stimulus prompts the birds to sing. Which hormones bring about this behavioral change? Is it important to know or just to recognize what is happening? Or, should one just enjoy the moment?
So, I listen for my local tufted titmouse to start the season. Then as the winter draws to a close, the tufted titmouse sings vociferously. Mating time requires a strong defense of territory and a seductive patter. A couple years ago, I would have told you that the tufted titmouse sings a “peter, peter, peter” song, but, in reality, their repertoire contains up to 12 different songs, each presumably conveying a different message. One hypothesis states the older and more experienced bird sings more songs or variations. An older bird, by the fact that they are alive still and have been able to avoid predators and starvation, automatically becomes a preferred breeder.
(two alternate songs from my yard)
After reading Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, I listened more closely. Sure enough, a titmouse starts singing one song and regularly shift to a different pattern and frequently multiple different patterns. Now while birding, I do not just listen to make an identification, but listen for variety.
I encourage everyone to listen for that first tufted titmouse song. Let me know when you hear it.
Ritchison, Gary, T. C. Grubb Jr. and V. V. Pravosudov. (2015). Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/tuftit
Kroodsma, Donald. The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York, 2005.
Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Borror, Donald J. Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms, Mayfield Publishing Company, Palo Alto, CA. 1971.