For the Birds: The local Bush Flitters

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Female Bushtit emerging from top hole of nest
Photo by Elaine Chuang

By Christine Southwick

First one brave little bird flits across open space from a tree to a nearby shrub, and calls for the others to follow, which they do one or two at a time, accompanied by flock-wide encouragement.

This delightful spectacle is the typical movement of a foraging flock of Bushtits.

These tiny gray birds with brownish foreheads have long tails, and they each weigh about the same as a nickel.

They flit around the edges of western forests with open canopies and into shrubby suburban areas. Their range has expanded into the mature forests which have become fragmented by developments.

Bushtit looking for bugs in cherry blossoms
Photo by Elaine Chuang

Bushtits travel in gregarious groups up to 40 birds, communicating all the time, searching twigs and leaves for their meat meals of spiders and tiny insects. With their upside-down probing, they almost best the acrobatic chickadees, which sometimes join the Bushtit winter flocks.

It is a real treat to see your suet feeder covered with these little puffs of fluff, chattering away, never quite still. If you see any with white irises, you have spotted the females.

Their nests are a marvel, looking like a foot-long windsock hanging vertically from a tree fork anywhere between 3-100 feet up. The outside of their nests is made of spider webs, moss and lichen, with fur, feathers, and plant materials inside.

Both parents claim a loose territory and make their nest for 4-10 eggs, with two openings: one on the side near the top, and one at the bottom. Sometimes there may be a family helper, usually a male. Bushtits can have up to two broods a year but will abandon a nest if they are disturbed before eggs are laid.

Typical Bushtit mob on winter suet
Photo by Lyn Topinka
(Find female on front left side)

An interesting fact is that an entire Bushtit family will sleep in the nest until the young has fledged; after that they sleep on branches and will huddle together for warmth in the wintertime.

Bushtits have territorial feeding routes, often arriving regularly at specific bushes in the summer; that schedule may change a little the winter, but they are still around.

So, when you hear the twittering of a flock of Bushtits, go stand where you can watch them as they crowd the backyard fountain or suet feeder, constantly moving about, seemingly in friendly agreement. We humans could learn sociability from the diminutive Bushtit.


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