A cloud of little gray birds with long tails and tiny, stubby bills swarms my suet feeder. Ten or more cluster on the feeder while many more wait in nearby junipers for a turn at the feeder. They chatter with one another in gentle, high-pitched twittering notes “tsit-tsit-tsit.” I approach within a few feet of the feeder. They pay little to no attention to me, as they go about their feeding.
These permanent residents are very sociable, and groups will roost huddled together in a very tight mass on cold, New Mexico winter nights. You can make your yard inviting to bushtits by planting native shrubs and small trees. Only a few songbirds are as small as my gregarious bushtits. They weigh about the same as four paper clips and are only 31/2 inches in length. They are smaller than some hummingbirds. They have a body shape similar to a chickadee — plump and large-headed. Their upper body is dark gray with a lighter gray underside. Both sexes look alike with only eye color differing. Males have dark eyes while females have yellow eyes. In the winter, they often travel in the company of chickadees and kinglets.
During the warmer months of the year, bushtits take full advantage of their diminutive size, hanging upside down beneath leaves and twigs, feasting on tiny insects and spiders that are hiding out of sight from other birds. Watch for a flock of bushtits hanging upside down in trees and shrubs like Christmas-tree ornaments. If you have a garden, hope for the arrival of a flock of bushtits and say goodbye to garden pests such as aphids.
Bushtits produce elaborate hanging, pouch-like nests of moss and lichen that are assembled with spider silk and lined with feathers. The nests can take a month or more for the male and female to build. Search your yard for these nests at a height of 8 to 30 feet. You will be amazed with the architecture. Bushtits typically raise two broods of young (five to seven) in the springtime. The young are incubated and fed by both parents. All Bushtit family members sleep together in their large, hanging nest during the breeding season. A breeding Bushtit pair often has adult male “helpers” at the nest that aid in raising the nestlings. Once the young fledge, all family members leave the nest and sleep on nearby branches. Watch and listen for flocks of these lively, gregarious songbirds this winter. Prepare to be entertained.
Ken Bunkowski and his son, Matt, are co-owners of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and look forward to sharing the joy that birds bring into their lives.