BIRD WATCH: Insects on the menu for bushtits

THE “BOUNCING BUGS” are back. That’s good news for the bushtits and other insect-eating birds. Temperatures rose just enough to encourage a hatching.

Small clouds of these interesting bugs were hovering over the sidewalk and driveway. They perform their bouncing actions without ever really going anywhere.

They rise and fall in the air, over and over, and pretty much hang out in one place. I always think of the bushtits when I see them.

A flock of these very small birds would make short work of these bugs. They must relish them like filet mignon at this time of the year.

They’re plentiful and a pretty good mouthful for a bushtit. A letter from a reader brought them to mind and I thought about the first time I saw them. Her description of this bird she wanted identified was textbook perfect and made things easy for me.

Nell wrote, “I noticed, just yesterday, a flock of very, very small grey birds that are just crazy about the suet … They are just a bit larger than a hummingbird, have average-length tails and come in a swarm, eat the suet quickly and leave. Then (they) come back shortly afterwards and repeat the procedure.”

That’s exactly how bushtits behave.

They’re a real mob when they begin piling onto the feeder holding the suet or lard oatmeal mix. Then, for no apparent reason, they explode from the feeder into nearby trees and bushes.

They may do this a few times and then another signal sends them on their merry, bouncing way. They are just as easy to recognize when they begin arriving.

Even without getting a clear look, you know that all those tiny birds shooting across the yard are bushtits. They fly almost in a straight but very loose line right to the feeders or bird bath.

Once they become regular visitors, the opportunities to get better looks at the individual birds increase. Their eyes are very interesting. The male birds not only have dark eyes, they are very dark and can look like they are wearing tiny Zorro masks. That first good view I had many years ago convinced me they did wear masks.

They are, as Nell said, “just a bit larger than a hummingbird,” but you can tell their sex by looking at their eyes. The females have yellow eyes.

As the weeks continue to slip by and our days grow longer, these good-sized flocks (20-30 birds) will begin to disperse. Pairs will form and choose nesting territories.

Most of the flock that has frequented the yard will spread out and move to other neighborhoods to nest. I’ve never had more than one pair nest in my yard and that’s just a little less than an acre. They need considerable territory to feed their young.

Bushtits may be small but they believe in large families. It isn’t unusual to have five to seven baby bushtits in one nest. It takes only a few families to produce a good-sized flock when they gather in the fall.

If a pair of bushtits favors your yard with a nest and you happen to see it, it’s special. It’s a beautifully woven soft “bag” put together with lichens, moss, leaves, cobwebs and other material that holds together well.

Hung from a well camouflaged limb it will bounce in the wind and keep the small occupants content. Their parents come and go through an opening at the top of the “bag.”

The very top of the nest is covered and prevents rain from getting in. Here’s hoping that Nell and many other readers will enjoy nesting bushtits this spring. You can’t have too many bug-eaters living in the yard.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected]

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