Last month on Capitol Hill Aviary, we saw birds that cooperate to kill. This month, we’ll look at birds that cooperate to avoid being killed: drab little passerines called bushtits. Bushtits may be easy prey for human pun lovers, but they’re harder prey for hawks.
Bushtits are tiny gray birds with brownish heads and stubby black beaks. They spend almost all their time in large flocks, and they sometimes gather on birdfeeders in groups of a dozen or more. Otherwise they hang out in trees and bushes, foraging for insects and small spiders.
Because bushtits are so plain looking, a lot of people don’t notice them at all. But they’re responsible for a good deal of the bird background noise around the neighborhood. As they feed, they twitter and tweet almost constantly. These vocalizations, called contact calls, help them keep track of their location among the flock. It’s as if they’re constantly saying, “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!”
For tiny birds like bushtits, maintaining close contact with a group is an excellent strategy to avoid predation because so many birds can stay on the lookout for danger at once. When any of them spots a hawk, it makes a loud, shrill shriek called an alarm call. The flock reacts by falling silent and freezing in place for several seconds.
You can find bushtits almost anywhere on the Hill that has bushes or trees. These birds favor areas with good cover, so protected backyards and large stands of trees are the likeliest spots.
Interested in learning more?
- Check out the bushtit’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- You can listen to bushtit calls at the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, or you can go outside and stand next to a bush.
- It’s a lot of fun to see a whole flock of bushtits on a suet feeder. If you don’t have a feeder at home, check out this video.
More Capitol Hill Aviary
- Eagles visit Lake Washington lunch spot — Plus, Interlaken owls
- Cheers! Hill waxwings get drunk
- Hill chickadees kill their own brain cells
Melissa Koosmann is a freelance writer and resident of Capitol Hill. She writes about education, culture, and nature — and, sometimes, birds for CHS.