Tufted Titmouse in Nest Box

Last Updated on June 15, 2024 by Nancie

Tufted Titmouse Parent on Nest Box
(Tufted Titmouse Parent on Nest Box)

Tufted Titmouse Nest Box: Like many backyard birdwatchers, we have a nest box intended for bluebirds but we really can’t know who will claim the box each year. Over several years, this particular box has hosted House Wrens, Eastern Bluebirds and this year, a Tufted Titmouse family. It was an eventful month. This is what happened.

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

House Wren in Nest Box
(The First Tenants of This Nest Box Were House Wrens in 2019.)

Nest Box Location

We purchased the nest box, along with a pole and baffle, several years ago and placed it in a corner of the backyard. Instead of the expected bluebirds, a pair of House Wrens moved in. A surprise. But we were fine with that and enjoyed watching the wrens’ activities. The next year, we did get an Eastern Bluebird family which was also fun.

While that particular spot seemed to work for several species, we have added many native bushes and trees to our yard in recent years and eventually needed to move the box. Last year we tried a different spot on the other side of the yard but got not a single taker. That area might have been too wooded or maybe too close to feeders. Or maybe wasn’t facing the best direction. Probably all three.

Empty Nest Box in Grassy Area of Front Yard
(Newly Moved Nest Box in Grassy Area of Front Yard.)

(April 7) So this spring, we moved the box again, this time to a grassy area of the front yard facing roughly east/northeast. (There are still a lot of trees around it because our yard is wooded.)

Tufted Titmouse Bringing Moss to Nest Box
(Tufted Titmouse Bringing Moss to Nest Box.)

Tufted Titmouse Nest Building

(April 14) While we didn’t get bluebirds, we were delighted to discover a Tufted Titmouse pair building a nest in the box. Two titmice carried moss back and forth to the box, so it appeared that both parents were involved in the nest building. There is no camera inside the box so it’s also possible that both mom and dad brought supplies while mom arranged them.

Titmouse With Beak Full of Moss
(Titmouse With Beak Full of Moss)

Then. Nothing. After a single day of activity, I no longer saw anyone go in and out. The box was in a less trafficked part of the yard and not easy to see from the house. But any time we did peer out at it, or walked past or even paused to watch for a while, there seemed to be nothing going on.

Moss on Top of Nest Box
(Moss on Top of Nest Box.)

The nest seemed abandoned. Weeks went by.

Titmouse Babies and Eggs
(Titmouse Babies and Eggs)

Tufted Titmouse Babies!

(5/8) A full three weeks later, I walked past one day and decided to open the box and see how far the pair had gotten before they stopped. Imagine my shock when I opened the box to see a fully constructed neatly built nest with two little eggs and two incredibly tiny little freshly hatched naked titmice popping up with wide open little mouths! I couldn’t believe it.

I took about five seconds to take a blurry cell phone picture, and immediately closed up the box and walked away. I don’t know if mom and dad witnessed my peek into the box.

Quiet Incubation

So apparently titmice are very discrete on the nest. It does make sense that it would be better not to draw attention to an active nest. And mom does of course need to incubate the eggs. Cornell Lab’s Birds of the World website explains that, “In Maryland, average period on the nest 27.0 min for one female (range 4–70 min), 27.2 min (range 9–46 min) for another . . . The average period off the nest 7.3 min (range 1–44 min) and 10.1 min (range 2–22 min) in Maryland.”

So basically, I simply hadn’t looked in the right direction when mom titmouse was going in or out of the box. Building a nest can take several days. Looking back, I probably caught the last day of nest building. After that point, things get quiet for a while.

Mom or Dad Bird Bringing Food to Babies
(Bringing Food to the Babies)

Feeding Tufted Titmouse Nestlings

After discovering that the box was NOT empty, I found an out of the way spot to watch the box for about half an hour a little later that day. I watched mom and dad titmouse move back and forth between nearby trees and the yard and the box, each time with something tiny and white (some type of caterpillar or a bit of suet?) I didn’t want to freak the parents out, so I would go out for a little while from off to the side to watch most days, depending on the weather. (It’s been an especially grey, cool wet spring here in Maryland.)

House Sparrow
(A Different Male House Sparrow.)

House Sparrows Take An Interest

(5/13) Tufted Titmice are supposed to take about fifteen or sixteen days to leave the nest after hatching. Unfortunately, a pair of House Sparrows noticed the nest about five days after I did, possibly not coincidentally just after a brood of House Sparrow fledglings appeared in the yard. (House Sparrows tend to have multiple broods.)

I was working outside in another part of the yard and and looked up to see two House Sparrows hovering in the air in front of the box hole. I ran to the front yard yelling like a crazy person to scare them away. (Yes, I imagine any neighbor paying attention probably thinks I’m a bit of a nut.) Note: I was so busy chasing these sparrows away, that I didn’t get a picture of them.

House Sparrows are notorious for evicting other birds from both natural nest cavities and nest boxes. They are willing to kill the original tenants, both parents and young, to do this. They then add a few additions to the nest and lay their own eggs.

A male House Sparrow hung out in the general area for hours on end, mostly sitting in a mulberry tree or an oak tree about twenty feet from the box. He was singing up a storm. I’ve read that an unattached male House Sparrow will sit near a nest and sing to attract a female. If the female likes the chosen spot, they will use that nest.

Homemade Sparrow Spooker
(Homemade Sparrow Spooker)

Adding a Sparrow Spooker to the Box

House Sparrows can be very tenacious, but I hoped to protect the Titmouse babies for their last few days in the nest box. So I quickly researched online whether there was anything to be done. One common suggestion for keeping House Sparrows off bluebird boxes is to add a “Sparrow Spooker” to the top of the box. The best timing is said to be after the nest is built, right after the first egg is laid.

This contraption is a short upright pole with two outstretched arms. Shiny Mylar streamers attached to the arms dangle down to brush the box’s top surface. The idea is that the streamers will wave in the breeze. My husband Jim did an emergency construction job to create one out of PVC, all weather electrical tape and strips of metallic wrapping paper. He used duct tape to tape the upright PVC pole to the bird box’s metal pole behind the box. (Note: Due to the angle of the photo, in these pictures it looks like there is a single arm on the spooker, but there are actually two spread to overhang each side of the box top.)

Titmouse Parent and Sparrow Spooner
(First Titmouse Encounter with Sparrow Spooker.)

As you can see in this photo, the Sparrow Spooker spooked mom and dad Titmouse for about five minutes or so. Each bird flew toward the box, then backed off to settle somewhere, then repeated the process several times. But they needed to get to their babies, so within a few minutes they braved the streamers overhead and popped easily in and out of the box. After that point, they appeared to ignore the spooker.

Tufted Titmouse Parent Sitting on a Wire Near Nest Box
(Tufted Titmouse Parent Sitting on a Wire Near Nest Box.)

Did the Sparrow Spooker Work?

We couldn’t stake out the box 24/7 to stand guard so we felt this was the best we could do. Did it work? Did it help? I’m honestly not sure. Over the next few days, we did see the House Sparrows at times hover around the front of the box. They would mostly come close when one of the parents returned from a food foraging trip. The sparrows would hover in front but I did not see them land on the box.

I’m not sure how House Sparrows typically attack birds in boxes. I’ve read that they will at least sometimes trap the parent inside to attack them and the babies. So maybe they wanted to do that but were put off by the streamers. But it also seems possible that they were just watching to see how the titmice dealt with the weird streamers? Or maybe the titmice parents were doing something I didn’t see to discourage them. Or maybe they could tell the titmice would be vacating the box soon and were just keeping tabs on them. I don’t know.

Titmouse Parents Ignore the Sparrow Spooker
(Titmouse Parents Ignore the Sparrow Spooker.)

Mom and Dad Titmouse Continue On

I was feeling stressed for them, but mom and dad Titmouse appeared to ignore the House Sparrows. They continued to go in and out of the box regularly with the food and removing waste. I never saw them interact with the sparrows in any way.

Sparrows Add to Top of Titmouse Nest
(Sparrows Add to Top of Titmouse Nest.)

House Sparrows Take Over the Box

(5/17) Then one day, still a couple days before I thought the little ones would fledge, I saw one of the House Sparrows land on top of the box. I scared it away and added more metallic streamers, this time cut from a metallic potato chip bag and ordered some bird scare tape overnight from Amazon. (Affiliate link.)

(5/18) But by the next day, I could see the House Sparrows going in and out of the box, ignoring both the original streamers and the newly added bird tape. So it appeared to be over.

I went out and opened the box. The titmouse nest was empty. The House Sparrows had added a top layer of messy bits of grass but probably hadn’t worked on their nest modifications for long. There was no sign of the titmice.

Titmice Killed? Or Did They Fledge?

What happened? I can see two possibilities. One is that the House Sparrows finally drove off and/or killed the titmice and moved in. But there was no sign of this type of carnage, either inside or outside the box. I found no little bodies in the nesting material or anywhere in the yard.

The second possibility is that the titmouse family ignored the sparrows until it was time to fledge. Then the sparrows then took up residence. (This sparrow occupancy didn’t last long. I immediately took down the box. I do my best to keep invasive House Sparrows out of my yard.)

Fledgling Behavior Varies By Species

Although we always have a titmouse pair around all year, I didn’t remember seeing Tufted Titmouse fledglings before. Fledging does vary by bird species though. Right now for example, our yard is full of House Finch fledglings. They follow their moms and dads around fairly non-stop, incessantly flapping their wings and vocally yelling for food. It looks exhausting for mom and dad!

We also have a trio of Common Grackle fledglings. Their parents dumped them on the ground below the hanging suet feeders and went on about their own business as far as I can tell. The three fledgling grackles hung out there on their own for several days, waiting for suet scraps to fall from the sky. They vocally complained to any bird they happen meet there. I watched them try to get Red-Winged Blackbirds and Blue Jays to feed them. They are learning to obsess over suet very early. Sigh.

Tufted Titmouse Fledgling Behaviour

Anyway, Tufted Titmouse fledglings apparently don’t go either of these routes. According to Birds of the World, “In Michigan, young left nests both in the morning and afternoon; two days after this, young still not very active, preferring to sit in one place in areas with heavy shrub cover. Young started feeding themselves on the fifth day after leaving nests; at six weeks of age all young foraged independently.”

I was relieved to read this. My theory now is that the birds probably fledged and mom and dad parked them in a thick wilder area of either the neighbor across the street or next door’s yards. Walking around with Merlin app’s Sound ID on, it lit up for Tufted Titmouse near an overgrown area of my next door neighbor’s yard. While I couldn’t find them, I think they probably made it ok.

Possible Juvenile Tufted Titmouse on Suet Feeder
(Possible Juvenile Tufted Titmouse on Suet Feeder.)

Tufted Titmouse Sightings

(5/20) I suspect that the birds probably fledged the day before I found the nest box empty. A few days later, I saw a Tufted Titmouse on a seed feeder in the back yard at dusk. It was alone and acting confidently but I thought it looked a bit different than the typical Tufted Titmouse. Instead of mostly crisp grey and white trimmed with black, this one seemed more light brown than grey and a dusty white rather than cleaner white. I saw it again multiple times over the next few days (and maybe second one) in the sun and it still looked browner and scruffier than the pair I’d been seeing in the yard. The patch of feathers above its beak looks dark brown rather than black.

I poked around in my birding apps, books and online and had a lot of trouble finding a description of Tufted Titmouse fledglings. Birds of the World again came to the rescue. There I learned, “Overall, similar in appearance to adult, but black forehead patch of juvenile is variably smaller, duskier, and less distinct than that of adult, flanks are less saturated, and feathers are more filamentous (appear fluffier and more disheveled).” This matched what I was seeing.

So far, I think I’ve seen at least one juvenile Tufted Titmouse and maybe a second one and the two parents. Did the other two eggs hatch? I don’t know. But I am still keeping an eye on birds in my yard, to try and figure it out.

Have you watched Tufted Titmice nesting? Please feel welcome to share your experience in the comments below.

Note: Birds of the World

Cornell Lab’s “Birds of the World” is an online website that requires a yearly subscription. The information overlaps a bit with Cornell’s “All About Birds” site but it includes additional data. The amount of information on any particular bird species depends at least in part on how thoroughly studied that species has been. If you have a very casual interest in North American birds, you may find the free All About Birds site to be plenty. If you are looking for deeper information and/or info that extends to birds from other parts of the world, you may find Birds of the World to be a good fit for you. All About Birds covers over 600 North American Species. Birds of the World has varying amounts of information on 11,017 species. (Links below.)

Good wishes,

Nancie

Learn More About Tufted Titmouses

Cornell Lab: All About Birds Tufted Titmouse

Cornell Lab: Birds of the World (paid): Tufted Titmouse

Avian Report: Tufted Titmouse Nest and Eggs

Cornell Lab: Like Chasing Tornadoes: the Fun and Challenge of Mixed Species Flocks

Learn More About House Sparrows

Birdseed and Binoculars: Deterring House Sparrows

Cornell Lab: All About Birds: House Sparrows

Learn More About Nest Boxes

Avian Report: How to Reduce Competition Among Birdhouse Nesting Birds

Avian Report: Primary And Secondary Cavity Nesting Birds And Why They Fight Over Birdhouses

Birdseed and Binoculars: House Wrens in Bluebird Box

Birdseed and Binoculars: “Into The Nest” Book Review

Birdseed and Binoculars: Attracting Eastern Bluebirds

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2 thoughts on “Tufted Titmouse in Nest Box

  1. Thank you for sharing. I always enjoy reading about your birding experiences and adventures. I have missed them and hope you are doing well.

    1. Hi Jeanne,
      I’m glad you enjoyed reading about my Tufted Titmouse experience. The last year or so has been a busy one but I’m doing well. I have a few other topics in mind that I want to write about soon. (I’ve been procrastinating about one since November. It’s going to be very picture heavy, and that takes time to put together so I’ve been slow with it. But anyway, I hope to get that one together and posted hopefully in the next few weeks.
      Good wishes,
      Nancie

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