There you are, walking down your block of tall apartment buildings, when you hear a strange twittering noise. A small gray bird flits across your path, and disappears into a pendulous, mossy nest hanging in bush. The whole moss-sock starts to quiver and small twitters come from within, the bird reappears and flies off peeping all the while. You’ve just discovered a bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus).
A reader wrote in recently and asked about these diminutive birds, having been shown a nest by a neighbor. I was excited to see someone writing to ask a question, but even more excited they were inquiring about bushtit rarity in our area and what we can do to help them. This is commendable, as we should all stride for awareness of our natural neighbors, common or scare.
The real question is: do bushtits need our help? Now, not be to a downer, but there’s been general decline amongst North American songbirds in the past decades and we should never take common species for granted. However, as we’ve altered the landscapes through our hominid tinkering, some species have responded by broadening their ranges. Bushtits are such an example, quite comfortable in the scrubby landscaping of the urban and suburban setting. They appreciate the open spaces we’ve created by clearing dense coniferous forests (note that I am not endorsing deforestation).
Overall bushtits have expanded their range north and west in the U.S., but that’s not the whole story. According to Washington state breeding bird surveys, conducted since 1966, bushtits have significantly declined locally. No one is exactly sure why, but possibly an increased population of nest predators (American crows being one of them) and the bushtit tendency to abandon nests when disturbed could be factors. Don’t worry though, bushtits aren’t in danger of winking out anytime soon despite a decline.
Bushtits are the only North American representatives of a family of birds that inhabit Europe and Asia, called long-tailed tits. They are weak fliers, so the general assumption is that an ancestor arrived via the Bering landbridge and became isolated in Western North America with the bridge’s subsidence. We are near the northern extent of their range, but they reside from here to Guatemala (they do not migrate except on occasion altitudinally).
If you become attuned to their nonstop vocalizations as I have, you’ll notice them quite a lot, even in the most urban areas of the city (I’ve seen them in small trees at Broadway and Howell). They are insect gleaners, moving about foliage of trees and shrubs, looking for tiny prey insects. Their particular mannerisms often lead them forage right at eye-level.
The biggest help we can offer bushtits is nurturing a healthy environment. Decline the use pesticides and herbicides in our yards and continue to provide habitat in the margins of a city that’s becoming more and more dense. Keeping ourselves and our pets from bothering bushtits, particularly during the nesting season, doesn’t hurt either.
My favorite thing about bushtits are their obvious, annual cycles. Being generally non-migratory, you can watch them float about in large flocks in winter, but in early spring they pair up for the nesting season. Bushtits have extremely varied behaviors, including cooperative breeding strategies, but in Seattle’s spring, I typically see only pairs flying about. Both male and female are gray overall, but the sexes have distinguishing eye coloration. They are calm enough in the presence of humans that I often pick out the yellow eye of a female or dark eye of a male with my naked eye despite their size.
Cushioned in their hanging nests, woven of moss, spiderwebs, and some human, dog, and cat hair too, are tiny little eggs, or even by now some early nestlings. Bushtits as a whole adapt well to our city, but they’d appreciate their space while nesting. So enjoy from afar and be happy to share this and hopefully many more springs with them.
Previously in Pikes/Pines