Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in several New England newspapers.
I call them the Big Three.
In order to make it easier to keep track of the number of bird species I see in my backyard, I lump together black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and tufted titmice. They count, of course, as three different species, but it’s just easier to group them.
On any given day I can count on seeing those three birds. Cardinals, downy woodpeckers, juncos, white-throated sparrows and mourning doves are nearly as reliable in the winter, but The Big Three just seem to logically belong together.
They are small, eat a variety of food and often forage together in the winter — especially chickadees and titmice. They are found on almost any walk through the yard, but they are also found on almost any walk through the deep woods or in any park. Even if a nuthatch is not seen, one is almost certain to be heard.
Of these Big Three reliables, by far the most dependable in my yard is the tufted titmouse. Whether they are poking at the suet feeder, stealing a sunflower seed from the platform feeder or sitting on a branch pecking at that seed, at almost any time of day I can look out the window and see a tufted titmouse.
A lot has been written about titmice, but I still think the bird is underrated. Cardinals and chickadees have been raised to icon status. Flip through a catalog geared toward birdwatchers and every sweatshirt bears the likeness of one of these two birds — maybe even both.
I like cardinals and chickadees as much as the next birder, but the titmouse deserves better.
Titmice rarely grace the cover of magazines or get included in the myriad of bird calendars on the market. Good luck finding a sweatshirt with a titmouse stitched on the front.
Maybe they’re too common. Maybe the gray/blue plumage is not exciting enough. Maybe the buff coloring on the sides is too subtle, or maybe the contrast from gray back to white belly, neck and face is not stark enough. The crested head is an attractive feature, but cardinals and blue jays are better known birds with crests.
Birdwatchers in New England should feel fortunate to see titmice at all. Their northern expansion — as is the cardinal’s — is relatively new, within the last 60 years or so. Many veteran New England birdwatchers remember quite well the days before the titmouse’s arrival.
The titmouse will always be one of my favorites for another reason. When I was a beginner to the hobby, the titmouse’s call was the first one I memorized — and I did it the hard way. While walking through Ashuelot River Park one winter day, I heard a titmouse calling “peter, peter, peter” over and over again.
I didn’t know at the time what was calling, but the loud, clear incessant singing certainly captured my attention. I searched long and hard for that bird, but could not find it in the woods. As my frustration was reaching the boiling point, I spotted the little gray bird and recognized it as a titmouse. I’ve never forgotten the call and its association with that titmouse.
Now my familiarity with titmice is such that I can lump them together with other common birds when keeping track of species. But my grouping together titmice, chickadees and nuthatches doesn’t mean I take any of the species for granted. They are the Big Three, after all.