Running with Birds: Tufted titmice live here year-round. They are prepping for winter now by hiding seeds and gorging on nuts

Running with Birds by Rebecca Pugh

If you are running through the forest in November, and you hear a bird calling “seet seet seet, wop,” look overhead and see if you can spot the silhouette of a bird with a crest on its head.

If you happen to be running with a tuning fork in your pocket, check the key of the call, and you will notice that it is in A minor.

Their other song is “Peter, Peter,” also in A minor, from E to C. The tufted titmice are busy singing, warning, and caching seeds for the winter.

Titmice generally live in the same patch of land for their entire lives. If you hear a titmouse, take note of the tree. You can listen for the same titmouse, in the same tree, the next time you are running underneath it … and likely for the next ten years.

In the springtime, titmice build nests in cavities in these trees. They seek out holes dug by pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers and build small cups from hair that they sometimes pluck directly from mammals’ backs, with leaves around the edges. Their eggs are about half the size of a grape, and they incubate for just under two weeks.

Baby titmice are born helpless, but they are protected by a network in the forest.

There is a vast community of creatures who help each other hide from predators.

Beginning with chickadees, and spread by nuthatches, titmice, and jays, a warning gets voiced and repeated.

Birds listen to each other, repeat the warning, and then hide. The alarm then moves to the mammals, with squirrels and chipmunks being the ones most well-studied as contributing. In very little time, the sound is traveling 100 miles an hour.

It begins with the “dee dee dee dee dee” song of the chickadee, and then becomes a “seet, seet, seet” song from the other species. 

Titmice are famously good warners of danger. They are also good savers, storing up extra food in fat times for the lean winters. 

They have several challenges as they find their place in the world of growing human population. Hollow trees are their nesting places.

Sometimes well-meaning people take down hollow trees, despite the fact that they are the titmouse’s home. Further, titmice depend on varieties of trees so their nuts and seeds can be abundant even in varied years.

When landscapers plant monocrops of trees, or trees that do not bear fruit or nuts, the titmice are left hungry. 

You might see titmice busy storing seeds this week. Pay attention to where they are as you run near them. You might hear them communicating with other species about what dangers there may be.

If you hear this, you can pick up your pace and know that the forest is alive and well. You are running with titmice, and you are in excellent company.

Rebecca Pugh is a storyteller, musician, and runner. Her training comes from the Mass Audubon Society, ornithologist Jim Berry, and her aunt Pam Goff. Her research begins each week with “All About Birds” at the Cornell Ornithological Labs. You can read more of her columns here.