What are the characteristics of the songs and calls of Tufted Titmice?
The Tufted Titmouse’s song is a whistled chant, peter peter peter or here here here, and it is a fast-repeated, clear whistle. The second peter in the song is usually at a lower pitch than the first note. The rate of singing can be from one song per minute to as many as 35 songs per minute. Female titmice also sing, but the function of their song is unknown (Grubb, 1998). Some males have more songs, as many as 10, even though six are probably used more often. The Titmouse would repeat one of the ten songs over and over again, then he would switch to a different song in his repertoire. The Titmouse’s sing most commonly during the breeding season, producing tonal songs with slow frequency modulations.
Furthermore, there are ten different types of calls, which are divided into two groups: high and low frequency calls. The three calls in the high frequency group are associated with aggressive behavior. The Tufted Titmouse has a large variety of notes, which are loud and generally pleasing. The whistled chant, “peter, peter”, is similar to the “phoebe” whistle of a chickadee, albeit lower-pitched. The Tufted Titmouse’s song is a two note phrase that has a high first note and a low second note. The song interval is one, one and a half, or two tones. The pitch of the notes is variable across songs as sometimes it sounds like “peter” and other times, it can be “wheedle” or “taydle”. When the pitch is higher, rather than lower, the phrase is daytee. There is an occasional slurred phrase, “teeoh”, and sometimes a song begins or ends with distinct notes, such as “tidi, waytee, waytee, waytee, etc.”, or wheedle, wheedle,wheedle, whee, whee.”
How do Tufted Titmice learn song?
When one Titmouse sings, his neighbors usually reply with the same song and thus, the Titmouse shares his common songs with his neighbors in his repertoires. Males learn songs as juveniles before dispersal from their families and they change their songs after dispersal in order to match those of their neighbors. Song is important for long distance interactions between neighbors and Tufted Titmice often alternate their songs to prevent overlap (Schroeder & Wiley, 1983). Titmice also attempt to match songs during interactions with neighbors. Male Tufted Titmice sing at low rates after the birth of offspring and this may have two functions. First, the song may inform young that a male is coming with food and second, males are tutoring young. Tufted Titmice learn songs and song learning appears before the young leave their parents. In support of the tutoring hypothesis, young titmice sing immediately after the male parent sang, occasionally using the same song type (Duguay and Ritchison, 1998). Furthermore, the songs used by the male parent and nearby neighbors were present in the repertoires of the young titmice within four weeks of birth. If male parents sing with more variability, the young may be exposed to more song types. This type of tutoring has been observed in other species.
How do the calls of Tufted Titmice serve as distress signals?
Tufted Titmouse calls are “nasal, wheezy, and complaining” (Kroodsma, 2005). The most common call is a scratchy tsee-day-day-day. Tufted Titmice have scolding call notes and when they spot predators they have a harsh call that warns the other titmice of oncoming danger. Birds can have slightly different calls depending on whether they are warning others about a predator or letting other birds know there is food available. In the Tufted Titmouse, it was discovered that, depending on the circumstances, they can produce at least 194 different calls. Their calls change depending on how imminent the threat is. If there is a predator that is coming straight towards them, their calls will be louder, faster and more urgent and composed of different types of notes (typically more Z and D notes). If the predator is facing away from them or traveling in a direction that is not directly at them, they will not make as many calls and the calls they do make will not have as many notes or be as fast.
Tufted Titmouse Song and Call (Sibley, 2012).
What can we do in the future?
Future research on the singing behavior of the Tufted Titmice can be focused on the purpose of their calls. Currently, the purpose of Tufted Titmice calls as distress signals is undergoing study. Research on the varying purposes of their calls can be performed using an experimental study. Playback speakers (neighbors, predators, etc.) can be used to determine the purpose of the calls.
Authors: Abhideep Singh and Alexandra Frazier
Duguay, J.P. & Ritchison, G. 1998. A contextual analysis of singing behavior in Tufted Titmice. Journal of Field Ornithology, 69, 85-94.
Freeberg, T. M., Krama, T., Vrublevska, J., Krams, I., & Kullberg, C. 2014. Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) calling and risk-sensitive foraging in the face of threat. Animal Cognition, 17, 1341-1352.
Grubb, T.C. Wild Bird Guide: Tufted Titmouse. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1998.
Kroodsma, D.E. The Singing Life of Birds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Schroeder, D.J. Communication with Shared Song Themes in Tufted Titmice. 1983. The Auk, 100, 414-424.
Sibley, D. The under-appreciated variation of Tufted Titmouse songs. Sibley Guides. 2012.
Vélez, A., Gall, M.D., & Lucas, J.R. (2015). Seasonal plasticity in auditory processing of the envelope and temporal fine structure of sounds in three songbirds. Animal Behaviour, 103, 53-63.