This morning I was standing on the porch enjoying my morning coffee when I was suddenly struck by the unusual absence of any kind of sound or movement. The trees didn’t sway and not a creature stirred. Even the air stood still. I was marveling at the odd and unnatural silence of the forest when suddenly a flurry of small, gregarious chickadees, titmice, juncos and nuthatches suddenly rained down upon the yard, filling the air with their busy chatter and my heart with a childish happiness. Among the festive band of feathered friends were a large and noisy group of titmice. These friendly, acrobatic birds seemed the busiest and most vocal of the group and my attention naturally turned to them.
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is an enchanting grey and white bird with a pert little crest rising from the top of its head. The back, head and tail feathers of titmice are pale-grey to sooty-charcoal in color and both sexes sport a touch of rust-colored feathers beneath the wings and near the rump. Titmice also have a small hourglass-shaped swatch of dark grey to black feathers between the beak and the forehead.
For being only 6½” long, this little bird makes a big presence in woodlands all across the eastern half of the United States as it happily cavorts mixed bands of small birds. Titmice are rarely shy and readily take advantage of bird feeders and man-made birdhouses. Their non-stop chattering often consists of a whistling “pe-ter, pe-ter”, or a raspy “cher-cher-cher” or “tsee-day-day-day”, but they also have a series of lovely songs that sound similar to those of the Carolina wren.
Titmice don’t migrate, but they do move from solitary mating pairs in summer to large social groups of mixed species in winter. The large, active groups and lack of leaf cover combined with the friendly nature of these birds make watching titmice in winter very easy. In fact, it is during the winter months that we really get to enjoy the acrobatic skills of the titmice as they forage for seeds, acorns, insects, beetles, larvae and worms.
This morning, I spent quite some time watching the mixed flock forage through the yard as I drank my coffee. I had just returned to the house to warm up a bit when I heard a loud thud at the window and I stopped cold. Only one thing makes a sound like that and I immediately ran outside. Just below the window lay an unmoving titmouse.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time this has happened. During mating season it is not uncommon for birds to attack their reflections in the windows thinking that it is a rival bird. But in fall and winter, this kind of thing is usually caused by birds flying into the reflections of trees and blue sky. Almost all birds have difficulty discerning between a reflection and the real thing and unfortunately, often results in the bird flying very fast into what looks like open space. Needless to say, a head-on collision with a window at high speed can result in serious injury, if not death.
When I arrived at the offending window the titmouse was upright, though not standing. It was obviously conscious, but its small black eyes were fixed and unblinking. As I moved in closer, the bird didn’t flinch or move or turn its head towards me. It was alive, but in shock. An injured bird’s worst enemies are cold and exposure to predators, so I gently cupped the little body into my hands. Already, it felt cold to the touch.
It is rare to have an opportunity to see a wild bird up close and personal, much less hold one in your hands. I could feel the little claws of the titmouse scrape the palm of my hand and I could trace the outline of each individual feather on its body. I lightly stroked the silky throat with my thumb and examined the smooth, long tail feathers. I cupped the little one between my palms to warm it quickly. If we were lucky, in ten minutes or so, the bird would begin to rouse. Until then, I did my best to absorb every detail of this lovely little creature while still keeping it warm. I sat very still while cradling the bird in my hands – sliding a finger aside here and there to get a better look at my charge. Within a few minutes, I began to feel the life-warmth in my hands increasing and the little titmouse slowly began to blink.
To any wild animal, being touched by a human is a stressful and frightening thing and now that the titmouse was warm and regaining consciousness, it became very important that it feel safe. Because birds naturally roost at night, providing a dark environment helps injured and stressed birds to rest and overcome shock. As I was holding the titmouse, Dean had fetched a cardboard box and lined it with a thick, dry towel. The towel would help keep the bird warm while also providing a reassuring surface to cling to as it began to take to its feet again.
We put the titmouse in the box and placed the lid very loosely on top to shun most of the light while leaving enough of an opening for the titmouse to escape when it decided that it was ready. We placed the box outside in a sunny, protected spot that could be monitored from inside the house and left the titmouse to rest. After about thirty minutes I carefully peeked into the box and found the titmouse perked up a bit. It was slowly blinking and moving its head side to side. While this was a good sign that the bird would recover, it didn’t look directly at me when I opened the lid, which meant it was still quite stunned. A half an hour or so later, I checked again. This time the bird looked up at me at once – cocking its head to the side to see me better. I could clearly see the wheels turning as it calculated the situation – an excellent sign of recovery.
Knowing that the titmouse was only moments away from total recovery, I shifted the lid to a more open position and stepped slowly away from the box. I sat down nearby to watch. After only a minute or two, the titmouse hopped onto the lip of the box and flew to a low branch of a nearby oak tree where it sat quietly for five or six more minutes. Suddenly, the titmouse ruffled up its feathers in a grand gesture and gave me a reassuring chortle of thanks before flying off in search of its flock.
I rose and stretched my arms and legs, a bit stiff after sitting still for so long. I was thinking about how wonderful it felt to do something kind for another being. I don’t know that I necessarily saved the bird’s life, or that the bird even felt gratitude for being saved, but it made me happy to think I could help. Of course, I knew the titmouse and his flock would return with their cheery morning antics again tomorrow and for many mornings to come – more than enough reward for a small gesture of kindness.
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.