Paridae – Tits & Chickadees

Sultan Tit Melanochlora sultanea ©Craig Brelsford Website

Tits [or chickadees if you are American] are the feisty acrobats of the bird world. These familiar small songbirds tend to be popular wherever they occur, that is over most of Eurasia, Africa and Northern & Central America. They live in woodland, nesting in holes in trees but foraging for insects and seeds from the canopy down to the ground. These characteristics have allowed many tit species to become common garden birds, using food and nest-boxes provided by humans.

Tits are morphologically well adapted to their life-style. Their short stout bills are capable of tackling tough food items [and delivering painful blows to human fingers]. Those of Great Tits, especially males, become stouter in autumn as they switch from a diet of insects to one of seeds such as beech mast. The acrobatic antics of tits are aided by their short but powerful legs. Many, such as Blue Tits, can hang upside down suspended by just one foot. Tits have short wings with rounded tips, ideal for manoeuvrability in dense foliage but less good for speed. Their flight is weak and undulating, and most species are highly sedentary. This feature, combined with their ready use of feeders and nest-boxes, has made abundant species such as Great Tits and Black-capped Chickadees among the most-studied animal species in the world.

©Craig Brelsford – Varied Tit Sittiparus varius

Most tits are strikingly coloured, often in black and white but sometimes with blues, greens and yellows. A few species are drab, notably the Oak and Juniper Titmice of North America which are clad in shades of grey (titmouse derives from Old Scandinavian tittr for a small thing and Saxon máse for small bird but the plural titmice is now well-established). The sexes are usually similar but distinguishable, with males averaging larger in size and brighter in colour. Juveniles are usually duller and often more yellow in colour than adults.

Although most tits are noisy birds, their territorial songs are usually far from musical. The American name ‘Chickadee’ is an onomatopoeic rendition of common calls of three species [Black-capped, Carolina and Mountain Chickadees]. Tits breed as territorial monogamous pairs, with occasional instances of bigamy by males. Most nest in natural holes in trees or holes excavated by other birds, although some [e.g. Willow Tit] excavate their own nests. Any such excavation, and nest building and incubation in all species, is done primarily or only by the female. Tit eggs are whitish with reddish speckling. Both parents feed the brood, which is usually large. Family parties of tits at the end of the breeding season and winter flocks [which in some species can exceed 100 birds] are often joined by other species. Some species, e.g. Chestnut-backed Chickadee of western North America and White-bellied Tit of East Africa, seem to act as particularly powerful magnets.

Until recently, virtually all tits were placed in the same genus, Parus. The two exceptions were two South-East Asian species: the large [nearly Redwing-sized] Sultan Tit with its bright yellow crest, and the Yellow-browed Tit, which looks embarrassingly similar to a leaf warbler until you spot its stubby bill and small crest. A DNA study in 1996 rocked the boat by dividing Parus into no fewer than six genera, a change rapidly adopted by the American Ornithologists’ Union but not by all other checklists. In addition, several taxonomic splits have been proposed since 1995, potentially adding ten new species, although some have not been widely accepted. The IOC recognise 64 species; they are:

Fire-capped Tit Cephalopyrus flammiceps

Yellow-browed Tit Sylviparus modestus

Sultan Tit Melanochlora sultanea

Rufous-naped Tit Periparus rufonuchalis
Rufous-vented Tit Periparus rubidiventris
Coal Tit Periparus ater

Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus
Elegant Tit Pardaliparus elegans
Palawan Tit Pardaliparus amabilis

European Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus
Grey Crested Tit Lophophanes dichrous

Bridled Titmouse Baeolophus wollweberi
Oak Titmouse Baeolophus inornatus
Juniper Titmouse Baeolophus ridgwayi
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Black-crested Titmouse Baeolophus atricristatus

Varied Tit Sittiparus varius
Owston’s Tit Sittiparus owstoni
Iriomote Tit Sittiparus olivaceus
Chestnut-bellied Tit Sittiparus castaneoventris
White-fronted Tit Sittiparus semilarvatus

White-browed Tit Poecile superciliosus
Sombre Tit Poecile lugubris
Pere David’s Tit Poecile davidi
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris
Caspian Tit Poecile hyrcanus
Black-bibbed Tit Poecile hypermelaenus
Willow Tit Poecile montanus
Sichuan Tit Poecile weigoldicus
Carolina Chickadee Poecile carolinensis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Mountain Chickadee Poecile gambeli
Mexican Chickadee Poecile sclateri
Grey-headed Chickadee Poecile cinctus
Boreal Chickadee Poecile hudsonicus
Chestnut-backed Chickadee Poecile rufescens

African Blue Tit Cyanistes teneriffae
Eurasian Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus
Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus

Ground Tit Pseudopodoces humilis

Great Tit Parus major
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Cinereous Tit Parus cinereus
Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus

White-naped Tit Machlolophus nuchalis
Yellow Tit Machlolophus holsti
Himalayan Black-lored Tit Machlolophus xanthogenys
Indian Black-lored Tit Machlolophus aplonotus
Yellow-cheeked Tit Machlolophus spilonotus

White-shouldered Black Tit Melaniparus guineensis
White-winged Black Tit Melaniparus leucomelas

Southern Black Tit Melaniparus niger
Carp’s Tit Melaniparus carpi
White-bellied Tit Melaniparus albiventris
White-backed Black Tit Melaniparus leuconotus

Dusky Tit Melaniparus funereus
Rufous-bellied Tit Melaniparus rufiventris
Cinnamon-breasted Tit Melaniparus pallidiventris
Red-throated Tit Melaniparus fringillinus

Stripe-breasted Tit Melaniparus fasciiventer
Acacia Tit Melaniparus thruppi
Miombo Tit Melaniparus griseiventris

Ashy Tit Melaniparus cinerascens
Grey Tit Melaniparus afer

Contributors
  • Dr David Harper

    Brighton, UK | david@sussex.ac.uk

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 64

Useful Reading
  • Black-Capped Chickadee

    (Wild Bird Guides) by Susan M. Smith Stackpole Books; (September 1997) ISBN: 081172686X Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Great Tit

    (Hamyn Species Guides) by Andrew Gosler; Hamlyn (1993) ISBN: 0600579506 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • The Black-Capped Chickadee and Related Species: Behavioral Ecology and Natural History

    (Comstock Books) by Susan M. Smith; Cornell University Press (1993) ISBN: 0801497930 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Tits, Nuthatches and Creepers

    (Helm Identification Guides) by Simon Harrap & David Quinn; Christopher Helm (1996) ISBN: 0713639644 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Other Links
  • Chickadee Identification

    Website
    Identifying The Six North American Chickadees
  • Density-Related Predation by the Carolina Chickadee Parus carolinensis

    Website
    Pdf file on their predation of the Leaf-mining moth…
  • Elizabeth & Malcolm's Bluetit Pages

    Website
    In February 2001 we installed our first bluetit nest box containing a video camera. In 2002 we added a second box and camera and we watched the birds nest building, egg laying, hatching and finally fledging from both nests. These details can be found by clicking on the 2001 or the 2002 links alongside. Again, in 2003 we are monitoring nesting progress in both our boxes. Both pairs of birds have successfully reared chicks in the years we have been watching them. Follow this diary to see if we are as lucky this year. Details can be seen in the 2003 Diary alongside. Hopefully, we will be following them until early June when the chicks leave their nests.
Photographers & Artists
  • Blue Tit Parus caerulaus - Webcam

    Gallery
    German webcam on blue tit nest
  • Boreal Chickadee Poecile hudsonica

    Gallery
    [Painted] image
  • Bridled Titmouse Baeolophus wollweberi - Mike Dazenbaker

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Bridled Titmouse Baeolophus wollweberi - Peter LaTourrette

    Gallery
    Good image
  • Bridled Titmouse Baeolophus wollweberi E J Peiker

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Carolina Chickadee Parus carolinensis

    Gallery
    John James Audubon named this bird while he was in South Carolina. The curious, intelligent Carolina Chickadee looks very much like a Black-capped Chickadee, with a black cap, black bib, gray wings and back, and whitish underside…
  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee Poecile rufescens - Peter LaTourrette

    Gallery
    Some good images
  • Juniper Titmouse Baeolophus ridgwayi - Mike Dazenbaker

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Mexican Chickadee Poecile sclateri - Mike Dazenbaker

    Gallery
    Image
  • Mountain Chickadee Poecile gambeli - Peter LaTourrette

    Gallery
    Two excellent images
  • Oak Titmouse Baeolophus inornatus - Mike Dazenbaker

    Gallery
    Brilliant image
  • Tufted Titmouse Parus bicolor - M & D Porter

    Gallery
    Excellent winter image
  • Varied Tit Sittiparus varius - Mike Dazenbaker

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Willow Tit Poecile montana - Mike Dazenbaker

    Gallery
    Image
  • Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus

    Gallery
    [Moderate] Image

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