By Bryan Stevens
I received a recent email from Mary Jackson about a troublesome titmouse that has taken a liking to one of her kitchen windows.
“For the past week or so, I have had a tufted titmouse fly up to my kitchen window several times a day,” Mary wrote. She said the titmouse then proceeds to peck, flap its wings and make a three-syllable call that sounds like “chee, chee, chee.”
The bird’s behavior has understandably left Mary baffled. “Do you have any clues as to why it keeps doing this, and how I can stop it?” Mary inquired. “I thought it might be telling me to refill my feeder, so I did that, but the pecking and flapping continues.”
I replied to Mary’s email and informed her that her titmouse is exhibiting classic behavior of a bird that has discovered its reflection. It’s nesting season, and the bird is seeing its reflection but perceiving what it is seeing to be an intruding titmouse into its jealously guarded territory.
The fact that it is making the “chee chee chee” call means it is a male titmouse, so he thinks he is guarding both his territory and his mate from a dangerous intruder. The behavior is hardwired into the titmouse brain, so it is difficult to divert the bird’s attention from the window. I suggested that Mary cover that section of the window to banish the reflection. Otherwise, the behavior should clear up in a few weeks once the nesting season has ended.
The tufted titmouse is a mousy-gray bird with a dingy white belly and some rusty flanking on its sides. A coal-black eye and a crest completes the bird’s overall appearance. While not particularly showy birds, tufted titmice possess outsized personalities and provide great entertainment at our feeders. Their usual habit is to fly to a feeder, grab a single seed and carry the seed to a nearby perch where it is hulled and consumed before the bird repeats the process.
The United States is home to four other species of titmice, including the bridled titmouse, oak titmouse, juniper titmouse and black-crested titmouse.
The problem of birds fighting with their reflections isn’t confined to the occasional tufted titmouse. American robins are often reported as getting involved in kerfuffles with their reflections. I’ve experienced a similar situation myself with a female Northern cardinal. In her case, she had located her nest near a window at the back of my house. When she would catch sight of her reflection, she assumed another female had encroached into her nesting territory.
I’ve also seen Eastern bluebirds and dark-eyed juncos attack the exterior mirrors on parked vehicles. The junco was attacking the mirrors of several cars parked in a lot at Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee. No sooner would the bird grow weary of attacking one mirror than it would catch sight of its reflection in another mirror. The small bird seemed quite tireless in its determination to rid the vicinity of all rival juncos.
The case with the bluebird involved cars in a workplace parking lot. The cars’ mirrors were getting quite messy, but the cause remained a mystery until a co-worker caught a male bluebird in the act of vandalizing the mirrors on one of the parked cars. The male bluebird and his mate were actually raising young in a nearby nest box.
In these cases, the birds are responding exactly as their brains are wired to respond. They don’t have the means to differentiate their own reflections from actual rival birds. So, their behavior is likely to continue until their hormones begin to wane near the conclusion of the nesting season.
So, in some respects, the term “bird brain” truly applies to some of our feathered friends. Their instincts and hardwired programming, however, allow them to function perfectly well until an unexpected reflection complicates matters.
(Readers with questions are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also love to receive comments and hear about bird observations.)