For the Birds: Tiny Bug-eating Birds

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Female bushtit
Photo by Craig Kerns
By Christine Southwick

Have you seen a group of small birds darting from one bush to the next toward your suet feeder?

Consider yourself lucky (and also a good steward of a healthy yard). You have Bushtits!

Bushtits are tiny, weighing only 0.18-0.21 ounces (about 2 pennies) making them one of the smallest passerines (perching birds) in North America.

These little guys only live in the west where there are shrubs, bushes, and open tree canopy.

Male Bushtit fluffed up to stay warm
Photo by Craig Kerns
This makes sense when you realize that they eat insects found on shrubs, flowers, tree leaves and needles, really anywhere that bugs like to hide, including blackberries. 

Their acrobatic positions while finding their food are fun to watch as they often cling upside-down like chickadees do.

These diminutive balls of fluff fly in small flocks, usually darting one or two at a time from one bush to another with members on both sides making contact chatter, almost as if the wide-open spaces between branches are too daunting without flock support.

Small bushtit flock eating suet
Photo by Elaine Chuang
Bushtits eat those tiny scale insects that like flowering currants and other plants, plus aphids and leafhoppers, even spiders - a bug-eating reason to protect these gregarious spritely birds.

Their tail is almost half the length of their body, and this proportion results in a high rate of body heat loss, so in cold weather they must eat about 80% of their weight a day. 

Freezing weather kills the bugs they need, so offering them suet is vitally important.

Bushtits sleep together for warmth, and in the summer they will sleep in their unusual foot-long pendant-hanging nests made of lichen and held together by spider webbing lined with feathers, hanging from a branch.

Flock eating much needed suet during cold spell
Photo by L. Topinka
I have not yet found one of their nests in my yard, but I know a nest has to be nearby because every summer I have a nesting pair eating in my yard, the only time that Bushtits don’t fly in a flock.

Bushtits often come to a favorite feeding area about the same each day. I usually miss “my” flock since it usually eats about noon in my yard, and I don’t hear their soft calls unless I am outside. 

In the winter they may also fly with chickadees, probably because more eyes find more food.

Hang a suet feeder where you can see it—the ones with a cage around it will let more Bushtits eat at the same time. 

You and the Bushtits will be glad you did.


Anonymous,  December 8, 2022 at 12:26 PM  

They are so fun to watch! They would swoop into my old pine tree and busily peck at the bark.

Anonymous,  December 8, 2022 at 12:29 PM  

I had the same experience with my suet feeder! Thanks for the story!

Just My Opinion December 8, 2022 at 5:58 PM  

? for Christine - does the suet need to be hung in a sheltered space close to a tree? I have one hanging from a "branch" about 9 feet up in a wide open part of my yard to keep the rats off it - does it's open location make it undesirable for the tits?

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