Capitol Hill Aviary | Little birds make big noise

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!”

Bushtit on Cable, originally uploaded by Velo Steve.

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

Melissa Koosmann is a freelance writer and resident of Capitol Hill. She writes about education, culture, and nature — and, sometimes, birds for CHS.

6 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Aviary | Little birds make big noise

  1. Bushtits are adorable. They are one of my favorite birds. They are much cuter than this picture in person because of their appearance and their motions/sounds. They are usually very round and tiny- so very cute. And they flit around altogether so quickly so it’s a challenge to get a good look at them- as soon as you realize they are in a tree, they are soon gone. Their noises are very sweet and distinctive. They come to my trees in front of my aparment building often.

  2. Late one summer evening, I happened to catch a group of bushtits preparing to roost for the night. While not entirely quiet, their calls were quite muted. They had chosen a single stout branch high in the middle of a tree and were packing themselves tightly together along its length. Clearly it was very important who was next to whom as they were constantly flitting about trying to establish the “correct” order. Think of Pixar’s “For the Birds” short preceding “Monsters, Inc.” for a visual. Very fun to watch.

  3. I believe it’s the bushtits who build a fascinating nest…it’s a spherical structure which hangs off a tree branch and just sort of dangles in the air, away from predators such as cats who might raid the nest for the eggs. I had one of these in my yard once and it was really interesting to see and observe as the eggs eventually hatched….I think….never saw the young ones.

  4. my heart feels so much better when these sweet birds show up – spring is closer than it feels. I love how they “sing” to one another. The robins are also showing up and singing their hearts out.

  5. Yep, those are definitely bushtit nests you’re describing. They’re the only North American bird species to build this kind of nest (but lots of European and African birds do it, too).

    During breeding season, whole bushtit families sleep in their nests together at night. Most other bird species don’t do this, either.