Identification of the five species of North American chickadees

Tufted Titmouse

Members of the chickadee family are among the most familiar and popular backyard birds in North America. The best known are undoubtedly the chickadees, a handful of dusky-headed sprites that flock to feeders in most of the United States and Canada. The crested tit of the genus Baeolophe are not as numerous or widespread, but they are welcome in most of the lower 48 states and southeastern Canada.

The five species form a separate group within the family. All have short ridges which they can raise or lower at will. One species, Bridled Titmouse, is about the size of a chickadee, but the other four are all larger on average. Bridled often form flocks of more than half a dozen outside of breeding season, as do chickadees, but the other four crested tits are more often seen in groups of only two or three. All birds nest in cavities, but chickadees in general seem more likely to dig or enlarge holes to use them, while chickadees are more likely to use unmodified holes.

The Tufted Titmouse is the member of this group that is familiar to most people. Most abundant in the southeastern states, it extends north to the Great Lakes and New England and locally into southeastern Canada; it is a regular visitor to millions of bird feeders. With his cheerful, cheerful facial expression peeto-peeto-peeto whistles, it is a perennial favorite for many birdwatchers.

A related bird, the black crested chickadee, is common across much of Texas and northeastern Mexico, extending as far south as Oklahoma. Where its range meets that of the tufted chickadee, in a narrow area of ​​east-central Texas, they often hybridize. For this reason, the birds were “combined” into one species in 1976. After further studies, the two were separated again in 2002 as interbreeding between them is limited and there are genetic and vocal differences. But for field observers, the similarities between the two species are obvious.

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An even closer species pair involves the Oak Chickadee and the Western Juniper Chickadee. Historically, the two had always been treated as one species, as the Plains Chickadee. They weren’t recognized as separate species until 1997. The oak tit is practically a California specialty, stretching north into Oregon and south into Baja. Common in oak woods, it is also a regular visitor to well-treed backyards. The juniper tit is widespread in the western interior, but is generally rare, living in sparse forests of juniper and pinyon pine.

Finally, the most distinctive member of the group is Bridled Titmouse. Primarily a Mexican bird, it is locally common in Arizona and New Mexico, and it regularly visits feeders in forested canyons in the foothills. Smaller in overall size and forming larger groups than other crested tits, it appears in some respects to be intermediate between these birds and tits.

What to look for

The size and the shape. Small, round-bodied songbirds with short crests and short, stout beaks.

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Behavior. Actively feeding from twigs to main branches through tree trunks, and sometimes on the ground.

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Face and crest pattern. Varies from ornate on the bridled tit to very plain on the oak and juniper tit.

Distribution. Because there is very little overlap between the five species, in most cases they can be identified by range.

Voice. Where Oak and Juniper Titmice meet in northeastern California, song differences are the best way to identify them.

Coal-crested TitCrested Tit, adult. November in Starr County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

In general appearance and behavior, the Chickadee is very similar to the Crested Tit, replacing it in much of Texas and some southwestern Oklahoma, and southern Mexico. The black (often high) crest and white forehead of the adult are clearly different from the gray crest and black forehead of the tuft. In juvenile coal-crested tits, the crest is dark gray at first. In the narrow zone where the two species meet, they interbreed fairly often; adult hybrids usually have dark gray crests, but the forehead color is often an odd shade of brown. The voices of the two species are quite similar, but the crested hoopoe’s song is on average a bit faster and higher pitched.

Bridled titBridled tit, adult. April in Pima County, Arizona. Photo by Brian E. Small

In its restricted range north of the border in Arizona and New Mexico, the Bridled Titmouse is most common in oak forests or in mixtures of oak and pine at mid-altitudes, extending to rivers lowlands in some places. Smaller, more clearly marked and more sociable than the other crested tits of North America, it is easily distinguished from them, although at first glance it can be confused with a tit or with certain species of warbler. Travelers will notice that it resembles the crested tit of Europe and western Asia. Although the two are not close relatives, they may share an evolutionary history, as shown in the box on the next page.

Chickadee OakOak Chickadee, adult. January in Kern County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Drab but lovable, this lively chickadee visits backyards well-stocked with oaks or other trees across much of California and a bit of southwestern Oregon. Until 1997, the oak and juniper tits were combined into one species as the plains tit – an apt description. Aside from their short crests, these birds appear to be completely devoid of ground markings. Visually, the two are almost identical. The Oak Tit is on average browner, the Juniper Tit paler and grayer, but even slight changes in lighting can make a difference. Although the ranges of the two species closely approximate in eastern California, their overlap has been studied primarily in Modoc County in the northeast corner of the state, where they are best identified by the voice.

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juniper titJuniper Tit, adult. December in Socorro County, New Mexico. Photo by Brian E. Small

Widespread in the western interior, from eastern California to the Oklahoma panhandle, the juniper tit is generally rare in open juniper woods. No one suspected it might be a separate species from the Oak Chickadee until biologist Carla Cicero studied the birds in the 1990s. In most places the two can be separated more reliably by range. In far eastern and northeastern California, their songs are the best distinction. Oak Titmouse has a “softer” song, hissing Maps with alternating high and low notes. Juniper titmouse generally has a faster song with a “dryer” sound, closer to a trill on a pitch. The songs of the two species vary, however, and a few cannot be identified by sound.

History of the titmouse

Scientists have looked at virtually everything about members of the tit family, including their evolutionary history. A study, published in 2005, proposed a possible chronology of the evolution of North American species.

He said that the ancestors of the crested tit (genus Baeolophe) may have entered North America from Asia about 4 million years ago (half a million years before the ancestors of the chickadees). The original colonizer could have been something like the European crested tit or our bridled tit. Based on genetics, the earliest ancestor of the current four species without strong facial patterns likely split from the Bridled Titmouse lineage relatively early in their occupation of this continent. Later, in the Middle to Late Pliocene (or just over 2.6 million years ago), the crested tit/crested hoopoe complex diverged from the oak tit/western juniper complex.

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The other divisions in these groups were apparently more recent. Tufted and black-crested tits may not have separated until around 250,000 years ago. And the juniper tit is thought to have diverged from the oak tit in the late Pleistocene, only about 12,000 years ago.

Notably, the results, based on genetics, match what we might expect from observation: Bridled is the most distinctive, Tufted and Black-crested seem more closely related, while the distinctions between Oak and Juniper Titmice are very slight. .

This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.