David Sibley, in his marvelous new book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird, tells us that, besides hummingbirds, bushtits are the smallest birds in North America — slightly smaller than the golden-crowned kinglet. Five of them together weigh 1 ounce.
They are found in the Western states in open brush and gardens. They almost always travel in flocks of up to several dozen, constantly flitting and chattering through the foliage of shrubs and trees. Despite their similarity to chickadees, they are not closely related. Their nearest relatives are in Europe and Asia.
Most of you have probably seen bushtits in your yard, neighborhood or more likely at your bird feeder. These lively birds love suet, seed cylinders, suet cylinders and peanut pieces. If you offer any of these foods, you’ve likely seen a flock of these tiny gray birds mobbing your feeders, punctuating their feast with almost constant chipping sounds. Often if you see a group of bushtits at your feeder there are 30 or more waiting nearby for their turn. Watch for a while and you’ll see them fly from bush to feeder to tree in straggling flocks.
Bushtits are with us all year long. In the spring they build an impressive nest from moss, spider webs and grasses. Taking several weeks to build, their woven hanging basket is up to a foot long with its entrance/exit hole at the top. The nest is well insulated, keeping it cool enough on hot summer days while retaining its warmth on cool nights.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that, “A breeding Bushtit pair often has helpers at the nest that aid in raising the nestlings. This already rare behavior is made more unusual by the fact that the helpers are typically adult males.”
Bushtits are voracious insect-eaters and do a lot of good for gardeners by keeping down the aphid population on your backyard plants. When not eating insects, they are frequent feeder visitors, especially at your suet feeder.
Although common in our state, they are omitted from the popular Birds of New Mexico field guide by Stan Tekiela. I’m guessing that this was a simple oversight.
So, if that’s your only field guide, look these birds up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at birds.cornell.edu for more information.
Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and has been writing the For the Birds column for The New Mexican for 11 years.