Be careful out there little titmouse

Who is that, hiding in the shadows, peeking out from behind the tree?

I was sitting at the bird feeders at Bird Viewing in Catch the Wind. I was watching the titmice, chickadees, and other birds busily feeding in front of me when suddenly, they scattered. A whoosh of wings came at me, then abruptly turned and landed in a tree about 30 feet to my left, hidden in the shadows. In the midst of all this I heard a high pitched, shrill whistle come from somewhere over by the feeders.

There, on one of the feeders was a titmouse, frozen in place, not a muscle moving. The high-pitched whistle came from the titmouse. It was a warning to all within earshot that danger was near, very near, and not to move, if you value your life.

Everyone’s heard the loud scream of a blue jay as it signals danger. The birds in the area typically scatter when a blue jay shouts out a warning. At the very least it’s a, “get ready, something’s coming down the pike,” kind of warning. When a titmouse lets out with its high-pitched whistle the birds usually freeze in place, and stay that way till the danger has passed. It’s movement that stimulates the predator.

This titmouse sits motionless as if it had gazed into the eyes of Medusa herself.

Sometimes, in these situations, one of the birds moves prematurely, often with dire consequences. If you’re one of the birds hearing the titmouse’s warning, it’s best to stay put until you clearly see the danger depart with your own eyes, or wait until that other careless bird makes the first move.

It’s a dangerous world out there with all manner of creature looking to eat, and at the same time, trying not to be eaten by something else. It’s no wonder birds are constantly looking around them, alert to every movement in their view, and always listening. Those that don’t, often fail to make it through their first year.

What was it that came crashing through the feeders and landing in the tree to my left? It was a Cooper’s Hawk, from the size of it, a male Cooper’s Hawk. Perhaps our very own local Cooper’s Hawk who has nested here at the Museum for the past 5 years.

A Cooper’s Hawk. This is not the same bird as above. That bird never clearly showed itself to me. This is a female and is confirmed to have nested at the Museum (3/5/10).

What became of the titmouse? Depending upon whether you’re a raptor fan or a dicky bird fan, you will either be disappointed or be happy to know that the hawk flew off, the titmouse thawed, and the other birds continued to feed.

A note on avian alarm calls:

I’ve often noticed that alarm calls given by blue jays are different relative to the threat, predator, or location of the threat, a sort of “by land or by sea” differentiation on the latter. It is most likely the same with most birds, including titmice. I can no longer hear high pitched calls as well as I used to, if at all, so I can’t distinguish the subtle differences in some of the titmice calls. Other folks have used electronic devices to record and analyze the calls using sonograms.

Here are several papers written on both the meaning of various calls from both titmice and chickadees (they are, after all, very closely related) and the “freeze” behavior when a predator enters the scene.

Antipredator calls of tufted titmice and interspecific transfer of encoded threat information

Alarm calls of tufted titmice convey information about predator size and threat

Dominance, Foraging, and Predation Risk in the Tufted Titmouse

Have fun!

2 responses to Be careful out there little titmouse

  1. Leslie says:

    That first photo of the raptor is Hitchcock-quality suspenseful! Hopefully he was able to pick off some dinner somewhere else.

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Yes, I’m sure he was able to get at least a snack elsewhere, there are quite a few feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods. And, there are lots of pigeons and starlings on the menu in downtown Durham and on Ninth Street.

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