BIRD WATCH: Tempers erupt among yard’s bushtits

DAYS ARE GETTING longer and temperatures are rising just a little.

It won’t be long before the return of spring is in many creatures’ minds.

The mood in the yard has begun to change, and it’s noticeable. It can also bring some surprises.

Surprises and bushtits sounds strange because these busy little birds are very predictable and have a routine that seldom varies.

Throughout the winter, large flocks numbering in the dozens make routine visits to the feeder.

They arrive in mass and flit across the yard in one long string before diving into the tree near the feeder, the one holding the lard/oatmeal mix.

When they are clustered all over it, the picture brings to mind a porcupine with all needles erected.

It’s their long tails that give this effect. Bushtits look like round balls of fluff and feathers.

Their tails are long in proportion to their bodies. Even as they feed, they seem to be constantly on the lookout for predators, and “flushing” is part of their defense mechanism.

One second they will be feeding voraciously. Suddenly, everyone freezes and then the flock explodes off the feeder and into the trees and bushes. Another second or two goes by and they return as quickly as they departed.

This “eat and flush” type of feeding goes on for a minute or less and then they are on their way again. It’s through the trees and off into the woods or on around the house and into more trees and bushes.

The entire performance will be repeated throughout the day.

During one of these feeder raids, I witnessed something I’ve never seen among bushtits.

Due to their diminutive size and cuddly-looking appearance, bushtits present a perky, light-hearted demeanor.

I’ve never seen a hint of temper within the winter flocks. Now I have, and it was a shock.

The flock in question had left the feeder and made a stop in the plum tree before heading to the other side of the house.

That’s when two of these tiny mites “got into it.” They just exploded at one another and did something arguing birds rarely do.

They physically attacked each other, and there was a whole lot of twittering going on within the rest of the flock.

Maybe they were scolding the two combatants or maybe they were cheering them on. I was too surprised to even try and get a look at their eyes.

Did we have two battling males or two battling females? Whichever, it was obvious someone had stepped out of line.

Whatever set them off remains a mystery, but such behavior has tarnished the aura that has always surrounded bushtits in my mind.

Male or female, the only way to tell is by looking at the bird’s eyes.

Females have yellow eyes and the males have dark eyes. Sometimes these appear dark enough to make it look like the bird is wearing a Zorro-type mask.

One of the smallest birds in North America, this member of the titmouse family has been described in the following glowing terms: “uttering high-pitched twittering, tsit-tsit-tsit, as they feed; are sociable, friendly toward each other and toward people.”

Two very tiny combatants haven’t tarnished the reputation of these busy bug-eaters forever, but they have shown another side most of us have never witnessed.

This bird is one of the most welcome residents in my yard. These very small birds have huge appetites.

When they have young in the nest, they make some serious inroads on the critters crawling on our trees and bushes. They gather up those we can hardly see without a magnifying glass.

Let’s hope tempers settle down and at least one happy pair will make the yard their home.


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:

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