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Let's Go Outside
| Thursday, Oct 29, 2015

evelynevandersande_mugMy last two articles were about unusual insects ; the walking stick and the assassin bug, one with a surprising look but totally harmless, the other one small but not so welcome, and could present a real threat, especially if found in your bed.

However, I met some friends last week who reminded me that nature for many people is not something lovely, enjoyable and interesting like it is to me, but an unknown and threatening environment. “Going hiking with some friends is a dangerous activity around here. If we go early in the morning, we might be attacked by a mountain lion. So we went later on, it was very warm and we saw a rattlesnake on the trail. We ran so fast when we saw it!” I wanted to tell them “The rattlesnake won’t run after you!” but I could see that no amount of persuasion was going to work.

We see so many school children coming for their field trips to Placerita Nature Center and their first reaction is fear. “Are we going to see scary things on the trail?” It breaks my heart. And sometimes I want to bang my head against the wall with frustration. Generation after generation we try to educate, nurture this blossoming appreciation and love for nature as we know only too well that it should start early in life otherwise winning the battle is even more difficult.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 2.11.30 PMSo no scary stuff today: I want to choose a very innocent looking, cute and drab little brown bird that most people here in our valley can find in their backyard. Let’s talk about an endearing little bird called the Oak Titmouse. I see them all the time in my back yard and in Placerita, so I had assumed it was very common everywhere. Not so: it is found around live oak woodlands, oaks mixed with chaparral, conifers, cottonwood, pines, and pinion juniper woodlands, even mixed with Joshua trees. It likes well planted residential neighborhoods but is mostly absent from the majority of the urban coastal lowlands and has never been seen on the Channel Islands. So, it might not be as common everywhere as I had assumed… At least, this little bird must be plentiful and not an endangered species for sure? (I am really trying to write a very positive article) No such luck. Since 1966 and up through 2010, there has been a steady decline of 1.4 percent each year. All together that makes for 46 percent decline in the population in a rather short time and now it is on the list of species in danger of extinction unless there is conservation action.

Why is that happening? The population in California has increased tremendously, room is needed to build houses, so many oaks have been cut and fields have been cleared to feed all those people. It seems that 80 percent of the remaining oaks are privately owned. So property owners – keep those oaks in your garden, please! Cutting oaks to build development is a sensitive topic in Santa Clarita Valley and we cannot protect them all physically as it was tried in the past.

Why is this little Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 2.11.37 PMbird close to my heart? It is a tiny little thing, with big round eyes and a little crest on its head but it has a big personality and is not easily scared away. While trying to defend its territory from an intruder, there will be a torrent of harsh scolding notes, threatening posture with the crest raised in the air. It is an impressive display. They come very easily to bird feeders and you hear them before you see them. They take a sunflower seed and loudly crack it open with their beak. This “tap tap” sound can be as loud as a woodpecker. They eat seeds and insects at the rate of 40 tries in 15 minutes. They eat acorns while holding it with one foot and piercing it with their beak. They look for insects on leaves, inside walls and tree crevices, they pull apart galls, and poke at lichen.
They peel tree bark to catch insects underneath, they also eat berries, buds, and spiders.Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 2.11.49 PM

They fly in a very typical undulating motion and do not like to stay on the ground as it holds a potential danger.

They have an easy to recognize little song with high, thin notes and popping trills, they are very vocal. You notice quickly that they are in your back yard. And a sweet little side story: They used to be called Plain Titmouse then scientists studied their song and decided that there should be a separation between the Oak titmouse and the Juniper Titmouse because their song was too different. I just love to imagine the many song tapings that were needed to arrive at this decision, and the lovely hours spent comparing the different songs.
Females, males and juveniles look the same, which makes them so much easier to identify. They mate for life, the juveniles are born in the spring but when early fall comes, they have found their partner and the pair bond is permanent. That is always a nice concept for such a small creature.

They sleep in holes or in dense foliage.

In the spring the female finds the spot for the nest on her own, but the male helps with the building of the nest. It is usually built in an existing cavity in a tree, a fence, a pipe. They can enlarge an existing cavity in rotten soft wood with their sharp beaks. The female does most of the work to line the nest with grass, hair, moss and other soft materials. They have five to eight eggs and the female does the brooding alone while the male brings her food. When the nestlings are born they are fed by both parents. The young stay with the parents for three to four weeks.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 2.11.59 PMIt must be a common bird in your back yard if you live in Santa Clarita. It is a tiny little one but very energetic and lively and you will see them at your bird feeder if you have some sunflowers in your seed mix. They do not migrate so that might be a fun little bird to observe through the whole winter. Enjoy.

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.

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4 Comments

  1. Love the article, Evelyne! Good job!

  2. Diane Babko says:

    I really enjoy your articles, and especially enjoyed this one since we have very active titmice in our Valencia yard. They have a favorite birdhouse which they have nested in several times.

  3. Pat Willett says:

    We have lots of these cute little guys, but I always thought they were gray, not brown. What’s the plural–titmice?
    they hang around our bird feeders all the time.

  4. Sandia says:

    What lovely details about this beautiful bird, thank you!

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