BIRD WATCH: Lots to see with this little bird

“Psaltriparus minimus” is quite a mouthful – especially when you consider it is a name that belongs to a very tiny bird. Hence “minimus.” Of course that is the scientific name given to one of the most charming and endearing birds to visit our yards. The common bushtit as it is much more commonly known, has been livening up yards all over the Northwest these past few weeks. They’ve been building nests and raising families.

A bushtit’s nest is a wonder of construction and not unlike the larger bag-type nests constructed by orioles. The two are not related. This cozy nursery is a collection of moss, lichens, small sticks and even cobwebs. Even though it often hangs in a bush or tree in plain sight, it is mostly overlooked by passersby. The one thing that alerts you to the fact there is a bushtit nest in the vicinity is the chatter of the birds. Bushtits “talk” nonstop. The sound is a high tinkling melody that sounds like what you would expect a tiny bird to sound like.

When this twittering started up every time I worked in one corner of the garden, I became suspicious but could never see anything. Two very bushy, dense trees shared the sound. Sometimes it sounded like more than two birds in the trees. Once the first flock of bushtit youngsters swarmed the bird bath, I felt it was permissible to look for their nest. It was in the Japanese maple and looked like a clump of dried leaves unless you knew what you were looking at.

Bushtits are known to raise large families and that is pretty apparent this year. When the flock arrives at the bird bath and feeders, it’s difficult to get an accurate count because they never stop moving. At least a dozen of these tiny mites tumble into the bath at the same time. They are always close together as if they feel their siblings will protect them from whatever dangers lurk in the bath water. One little fellow actually landed on the back of another and stayed on until the bird underneath made it to the water’s edge. Even the most shallow bird bath is intimidating when you are the size of a bushtit.

I have searched through my library and cannot find any confirmation that bushtits raise more than one brood a year. That has lent an air of mystery to the nest in the maple. Why are the bushtits still hanging around that area and twittering at me when some weeding is called for? Is the brood coming to the bird bath the family that was raised in that tree? Or, is there another family whose brood hasn’t fledged yet? I’ve always assumed our yard would only support one nesting bushtit pair. This year, it is beginning to look like we have more than one pair and that’s just fine with me.

Even though bushtits really love the lard/oatmeal mixture and swarm onto it like a bunch of bees, they are huge insect eaters. The more bushtits feeding on the bushes and trees in my yard, the better. They find and devour bugs that are microscopic to the human eye. They not only scour the tree’s limbs and trunks, they search the upper parts and undersides of the leaves, gobbling up anything that moves. These very small birds are very welcome neighbors and this year their numbers appear to be reaching a high point. At least they are in my yard, especially if that nest in the garden keeps getting so much attention from tiny “minimus.”


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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